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Dropout Rates in the United States: 1995 / Introduction


This eighth annual dropout report by the (NCES) presents data on high school dropout and completion rates over the 1972 through 1995 time period. In addition to extending time series data from earlier reports, this report uses data on country of birth and enrollment in U.S. schools to examine dropout rates among Hispanic young adults. This report uses these and other data available for 1995 to focus on three specific sub-populations that are at particular risk of dropping out of school: foreign-born persons attending U.S. schools, young adults who have been retained a grade or more while enrolled, and individuals who have some type of learning, physical, or other disability.

Data from the October 1995 Current Population Survey (CPS) of the U.S. Bureau of the Census are used to compute national dropout and completion rates, as well as identify personal and demographic characteristics of survey respondents. Dropout and completion rates are calculated for population subgroups defined by sex and race-ethnicity, as well as income levels and regions of the country. In addition, NCES data from the Common Core of Data (CCD) are used to provide estimates of dropout rates by state.

Addressing the Problem

The economic consequences of leaving high school without a diploma are severe. On average, dropouts are more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates and to earn less money when they eventually secure work\1\. Moreover, young women who drop out of high school are more likely to become pregnant at young ages, and more likely to be single parents\2\. As a result, high school dropouts are more likely to receive public assistance than graduates who did not go on to college\3\. The individual stresses and frustrations associated with dropping out have social implications as well: dropouts comprise a disproportionate percentage of the nations prison and death row inmates\4\.

To address concerns over high dropout rates, as well as other shortcomings in the U.S. educational system, in 1993 Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Among other things, the National Education Goals call for a high school graduation rate of 90 percent for our nation's schools. More recently, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, enacted in the spring of 1994, is intended to help build systems that will prepare young people for high skill, high wage jobs. These programs, along with legislation for Head Start and Chapter 1 programs and new initiatives in welfare reform, all make evident the need for cooperation across departments and agencies at all levels of government if the nations education goals are to be achieved.

Monitoring high school dropout and completion rates provides one measure of progress in improving the status of our nations youth. While this report on dropout and retention is the eighth in a series of annual reports to Congress, it offers a significant departure from the organization of earlier editions. This volume opens with an update of three measures event, status, and cohort dropout rates that have been presented in each of the previous seven annual reports. Following this discussion, data on high school completion and graduation rates are presented, aggregated at the state and national level. Providing consistent trend data beginning with the 1972 CPS survey, the purpose of these first two sections is to provide readers with a better understanding of general changes in the national dropout rate, as well as specific information about how demographic characteristics were related to the dropout rate in 1995.

Although all students have the potential to drop out of school, some youths face significant challenges that place them at greater risk. Unlike earlier dropout reports, this eighth edition focuses on dropout rates among three specific sub-populations of youths at high risk of dropping out.

Foreign-born Youths

Individuals who migrate to the U.S. face considerable obstacles to graduating from high school, including the need to assimilate into a new culture and economic system, and in some cases, the need to learn a new language. For some immigrant youths, these obstacles prove insurmountable, preventing them from ever entering school in the U.S. Others come to the U.S. seeking employment rather than education\5\. Failure to take foreign-born status into account when calculating dropout rates can result in inaccurate estimates of dropout incidence for certain race-ethnicity groups, such as Hispanics. As a result, dropout rates are inflated because some immigrants, particularly non-English speakers, never officially drop in to the American educational system\6\. In particular, when counted as status dropouts, even though they never enroll in a U.S. school, these individuals increase the observed dropout rates.

Section three of this report offers a better understanding of the impact of the related issues of immigration and English-speaking ability on overall dropout rates. To better understand the dropout experiences of youths in the U.S. educational system, dropout rates are computed based on new information on school enrollment. Rates are computed separately for native- and foreign- born youths. Since Hispanic young adults account for nearly 90 percent of the immigrant dropout population, particular attention is focused on dropout rates among Hispanic young adults.

Grade Retention

Students who fail to master the academic and social skills appropriate for their grade may be held back a year so that they may have additional time to learn course material. Although grade retention is widely practicedestimates are that between 7 to 9 percent of all children are retained each yearthere is a growing body of evidence against retaining youths. Recent studies suggest that students who are retained often fail to realize increased academic achievement, and may suffer damage to their self-esteem or be stigmatized by their friends and teachers\7\. Moreover, in some cases, mixing older, aggressive, more physically mature youths with younger children can have negative, unintended consequences for all students\8\. Alternatively, there is also evidence that suggests that retention provides positive academic benefits to some students that presumably translates into a decreased likelihood of dropping out\9\.

While it is unclear whether retention contributes to the decision to leave school or is simply a signal of an underlying learning or emotional problem, individuals who are retained in school are at particular risk of dropping out. It appears, moreover, that the timing of school retention may be related to the dropout decision. Section four of this report examines grade retention and dropout rates, with particular attention focused on dropouts and the timing of retention in the elementary, middle, and secondary years.

Youths with Disabilities

Some students with disabling conditions are at greater risk of dropping out than students without a reported disability. This may be because the disability itself leads youths to consider leaving school, or because a disability indirectly contributes to lower achievement levels and thus a higher likelihood of school failure.

The likelihood of school dropout is often a function of the type of disability learning, physical, emotional, or mental. Past studies suggest that youths who possess a learning disability coupled with some other form of disability are at greatest risk\10\. Section five of this report examines the relationship between disability and dropping out in greater detail.

Methodological Changes

This years dropout report differs in several ways from previous years' reports. Beginning in 1994, the U.S. Census Bureau made improvements to the administration and methodology of the CPS to obtain a more accurate count of young people without diplomas. With this improvement in methods (and adjustments for population shifts between 1980 and 1990), a more accurate estimate of these rates showed that dropout rates were somewhat higher than those estimated in previous years. Since this report uses this new CPS methodology in reporting rates, readers should use care when making comparisons across years\11\. In addition, while the item non-response in the basic data reported for event and status dropout rates and high school completion rates were imputed by the Census Bureau, imputations for item non-response in the other 1995 data elements in sections on immigration, disability and grade retention were imputed as part of the analyses for this report\12\.


1/ U.S. Department of Education. Condition of Education 1996 (Indicators 32 and 34).

2/ In M. McMillen and P. Kaufman. Dropout Rates in the United States: 1994 U.S. Department of Education, , NCES 96-863.

3/ U.S. Department of Education. Condition of Education 1996 (Indicator 36).

4/ Estimates of the number of prison inmates who are high school dropouts range from about one quarter of Federal inmates to about half of all state prison inmates. See C.W. Harlow, Comparing Federal and State Prison Inmates, 1991, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 1994, NCJ-145864.

5/ See for example, J.R. Warren. 1996. Educational Inequality among White and Mexican-Origin Adolescents in the American Southwest: 1990. Sociology of Education, vol. 69 (April). pp: 142-158; and Hispanics Schooling: Risk Factors for Dropping Out and Barriers to Resuming Education GAO/PEMD-94-24 (Washington DC: July 1994)

6/ G. Vernez and A. Abrahams. 1996. How Immigrants Fare in U.S. Education. RAND: Santa Monica CA.

7/ For a review of the literature on the effects of retention see V. Dill. 1993. Closing the Gap: Acceleration vs. Remediation and the Impact of Retention in Grade on Student Achievement. Austin, TX: Texas Education Agency; or J.E. Foster. 1993. Retaining Children in Grade. Childhood Education, Fall (38-43).

8/ J. Moran. 1989. Professional Standards for Educators Making Retention Decisions. Education, 109: (268-275).

9/ K. Alexander, D. Entwisle and S. Dauber. 1994. On the Success of Failure. New York: Cambridge University Press.

10/ M. McMillen, P. Kaufman and S. Whitener. Dropout Rates in the United States: 1993. U.S. Department of Education, , NCES 94-669.

11/ The 1994 Dropout Report was the first report to take into account these new Census methodologies. As such, data are relatively comparable between the 1994 and 1995 reports.

12/ Imputations were performed using a hot-deck procedure with software supplied by D. McLaughlin of the American Institute for Research. For more information on the imputation procedures used, see the technical appendix.

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