Dropout Rates in the United States, 1996
By October of 1996, 5 out of every 100 young adults enrolled in high school in 1995 left high school without successfully completing a high school program. In total, these dropouts account for approximately a half million of the 9.6 million 15- through 24-year-olds enrolled in high school. These numbers have not changed appreciably in recent years.
The cumulative effect of hundreds of thousands of young adults leaving school each year short of finishing a high school program translates into several million young adults who are out of school, yet lacking a high school credential. In 1996, there were 3.6 million 16- through 24-year-olds who although not enrolled in school, had not yet completed a high school program. Overall, 11.1 percent of the 32.4 million 16- through 24-year-olds in the United States were in this group of dropouts. Although there have been a number of year-to-year fluctuations in this rate, over the past 25 years there has been a gradual pattern of decline that, on average, amounts to a change of 0.13 percent per year.
The goal of reducing the dropout rate is to increase the percentage of young adults who complete a high school education. Despite the increased importance of a high school education, the high school completion rate has shown limited gains over the last quarter century and has been stable throughout most of the 1990s.
Young adults in todays society have two routes to completing a high school education. Attending a regular high school, with graduation following a four-year course of study, is still the norm in this country. However, an increasing number of young adults are opting to complete their high school education through an alternative route, customarily by passing the General Educational Development (GED) test. In 1996, just over three-quarters of the 18- through 24-year-olds not still in high school were reported as high school graduates (76.4 percent); however, another 10 percent of these youths were reported as having completed by an alternative route such as the GED.
Over the last five years, the percent graduating decreased among whites and blacks and among young adults in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the South. During the same time, the percent completing high school through an alternative test increased, with 1996 alternative completion rates close to 10 percent for white and black young adults and for young adults in the South and Midwest.
The net effect of these recent changes has resulted in stable dropout and overall high school completion rates. These findings suggest that in recent years the emphasis on decreasing dropout rates and conversely, increasing the high school completion rate, may have translated into an increase in the use of alternative methods of high school completion, but not an overall decrease in dropout rates or increase in the proportion of young adults holding a high school credential.
Perhaps these alternative completers would have otherwise been dropouts; if that is the case, then recent efforts have succeeded in curbing another increase in high school dropout rates. It is also possible that the increased acceptance of alternative credentials has provided a different route for students who would otherwise have completed high school by means of a regular graduation.