Dropout Rates in the United States, 1996
HIGH SCHOOL COMPLETION RATES
The relative importance of a high school education has changed dramatically over the last half century in the United States. When the grandparents of todays high school students entered adulthood, a high school education was an asset in the labor force, held by about half of the population ages 25 through 29 in 1950.35 By the early 1970s, when the parents of todays high school students entered the work force, about 83 to 84 percent of the population ages 18 through 24 not enrolled in high school had completed a high school education (figure 4 and table A24). At that point in time, a high school education still served as an entryway to a number of promising career paths. Now, a quarter of a century later, technological advances in the workplace have increased the demand for skilled labor to the point where a high school education serves more as a minimum requirement for entry to the labor force. The completion of a high school education is even more essential, whether it serves as a basis for entry into additional education and training or as an entry into the labor force.
Despite the increased importance of a high school education, the high school completion rate for the country has been static over the last quarter century.36 The rate fluctuated around 84 percent between 1973 and 1983, moved up slightly between 1983 and 1992, and has been at about 86 percent since 1992. This net increase of about 2 percent is not very encouraging.
High school completion rates analyzed within each racialethnic group show different patterns (figure 4 and Table A24). About 86 to 87 percent of white young adults were completing their high school education in the 1970s, and by 1996 the high school completion rate for white young adults increased to 91.5 percent (table 13). In contrast, between 70 and 74 percent of black young adults were completing their high school education in the 1970s, but this rate increased for black young adults during the 1980s and has fluctuated between 82 and 84 percent during the 1990s. A lower percentage of Hispanic young adults complete high school programsabout 62 percent of all Hispanic 18- through 24-year-olds in the United States in 1996 had completed a high school program. Although there have been some year-to-year fluctuations over the last 25 years, the pattern for Hispanics is relatively unchanged.
These raceethnicity differences mirror the pattern of differences noted in the status dropout rates. The same is true when high school completion rates are examined within income levels and geographic regions. When dropout and high school completion rates are compared across income levels, young adults in families with high incomes are the least likely to drop out of high school (2.6 percent in 1996) (table 5) and the most likely to complete a high school educationin fact, 96.9 percent of the 18- through 24-year-olds in high income families and not still enrolled in high school had completed a high school program in 1996 (table 14). Conversely, young adults in families with low incomes are the most likely to drop out of high school (22.1 percent in 1996), and the least likely to complete a high school educationonly about three-quarters of low income youths in this age group who were out of school had completed a high school education. Similarly, young adults in the Northeast and Midwest had lower dropout rates and higher high school completion rates compared to their contemporaries living in the South and West.
Often interest in geographic comparisons extends beyond the regional level to state-specific data. In order to compare high school completions on a state-by-state basis, completion rates are computed based on data spanning a three-year period. The resulting state-specific completion rates represent the averages experienced over the three-year periods of 199193 and 199496.37 In looking at these data, it should be noted that the survey respondents may have attended school in a different state from where they lived at the time of the 1996 interview.
These data show considerable state-by-state variation (table 15). Using the 199496 three-year average, the national mean is 85.8 percent, with the average completion rates ranging from 78.6 percent in California to 96.1 percent in Connecticut. Viewed from this perspective, state-by-state data within regions of the country show that there are regional differences in both the level of the average rates and range of variation in the rates.
Figure 5 displays the range and medians for each of the four regions. There is a clear overlap in the rates across the regions, with some of the states in each region with average annual rates between 87.7 and 92.6 percent. While the high rates in each region are not appreciably different from one another, state-specific high school completion rates in the South and West are more likely to be lower than state level high school completion rates in the Northeast and Midwest. In fact, the lowest 16 completion rates each occur in states in the South and West. Furthermore, the lowest rates in the Northeast and Midwest are similar to the median rates in the South and West.
Recall that the data in table 13 show that by October of 1996, some 86.2 percent of the 18- through 24-year-olds who were not still enrolled in high school held high school credentials. Most of these young adults attended high school, completed the required secondary school coursework, and graduated with a regular diploma. In 1996, 76.4 percent of the 18- through 24-year-olds who were not still enrolled in high school held regular diplomas. The high school graduation rate, as opposed to the high school completion rate, is based on students receiving a regular diploma; thus, the 1996 high school graduation rate is 76.4 percent (table 13).
Not all young adults follow a direct path to high school graduation. As the dropout rates show, each year over the last decade 300 to 500 thousand 10th through 12th graders left school without a high school diploma. Some of them return to school and earn a regular high school diploma. Others use the knowledge acquired while they were in school, perhaps in combination with skills and knowledge from their post-high school experiences or alternatively through special study programs, to take and pass a high school equivalency examination.38
In 1996, 2 million young adults 18 through 24 years of age had earned high school credentials by passing an equivalency exam such as the General Educational Development (GED) test.39 The young adults who completed high school through this alternative route account for 9.8 percent of the 18- through 24-year-olds who were not still enrolled in high school in 1996 (table 13).40
CPS data indicating whether high school credentials were obtained through regular graduation or through an alternative route were first collected in 1988. Between 1988 and 1993, the graduation rate fluctuated between 80 and 81 percent, and the alternative completion rate fluctuated between 4 and 5 percent. Since 1993 the graduation rate decreased nearly 5 percentage points to the 1996 rate of 76.4 percent, and the alternative completion rate increased by the same amount (4.9 percentage points) (table 13) .
These trends are repeated between 1992 and 1996 in the graduation and alternative completion rates for white and black young adults. In both groups, the percentage point decrease in the graduation rate was offset by a commensurate increase in the alternative completion rate. For white young adults, a 5-percentage-point drop in the high school graduation rate coincided with a 6-percentage-point gain in the alternative completion rate; and for black young adults, the graduation rate decreased by 3 percentage points, while the alternative completion rate increased by 4 percentage points.
Throughout the 1992 through 1996 period, the high school completion rates were relatively stable within each group. As a result, these trends represent a shift, albeit small, from regular high school graduation to alternative completions.
These changing patterns are widespread. In both the Midwest and the South, graduation rates decreased by 5 percentage points between 1992 and 1996, and alternative completion rates increased by about the same amount. The pattern is less clear in the Northeast and the West, where changes in both rates were smaller (on the order of 2 to 3 percentage points). By 1996, about 10 percent of the 18- through 24-year-olds who were not still in school held alternative credentials. In the West, the percent with alternative credentials was up to 8.5 percent; and in the Northeast, the alternative completion rate was 7.3 percent (table 16).
 Digest of Education Statistics: 1996 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, NCES 96-133).
 The high school completion rate is based on the population of young adults ages 18 through 24 who are not still enrolled in school; the status dropout rate is based on the population ages 16 through 24. Thus, the age range of the status dropout rate is two years wider, and those 18- through 24-year-olds who are still enrolled in a high school program are excluded from the calculation of the high school completion rate. Because of these differences, the status dropout rate and the high school completion rate are not the simple inverse of each other.
 The sample sizes of the numbers of completers at the state level are, by definition, substantially smaller than the counts of completers supporting the national estimates (but appreciably larger than the counts of dropouts). To improve the stability of the state level estimates for high school completion rates, the rates are displayed as three-year averages (for example, the data for 1992 represent the average of the data from 1991, 1992, and 1993 and the data for 1995 are based on averages of data from 1994, 1995, and 1996). Even with this, sampling variability is increased substantially, especially in states with relatively smaller populations in the 18 through 24 age range.
 The General Educational Development (GED) test is the principal equivalency exam in use at this time. In 1994, about 680,000 people age 16 or older took the GED test, and 73 percent or nearly a half million passed the exam to earn a high school credential. GED Testing Service, "Who Took the GED? 1994 GED Statistical Report" (Washington D.C.: American Council on Education, 1995).
 In the CPS data there may be some ambiguity concerning students who complete high school with a certificate of attendance. While they should be counted as non-completers, some respondents may report them as completers when asked about educational attainment.
 As noted in Technical Appendix B, the rate increase from 1993 to 1994 coincided with the CPS implementation of CATI procedures. However, the rate has continued to increase in 1995 and 1996.