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Dropout Rates in The United States: 2002 and 2003

NCES 2008-053
September 2008

National Event Dropout Rates

The event dropout rate presented here estimates the percentage of both private and public high school students who left high school between the beginning of one school year and the beginning of the next without earning a high school diploma or its equivalent (e.g., a General Educational Development certificate, or GED). Specifically, the rate describes the percentage of youth ages 15 through 24 in the United States who dropped out of grades 10–12 from either public or private schools in the 12 months between one October and the next (e.g., October 2002 to October 2003). The measure provides information about the rate at which U.S. high school students are leaving school without a successful outcome. As such, it can be used to study student experiences in the U.S. secondary school system in a given year. It is not well suited for studying how many people in the country lack a high school credential irrespective of whether they attended U.S. high schools, nor does it provide a picture of the dropout problem more generally because it only measures how many students dropped out in a single year. Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) are used to calculate national event dropout rates.

  • National event dropout rates: Four out of every 100 students enrolled in high school in October 2002 left school before October 2003 without completing a high school program (table 1-A). Since 1972, event dropout rates have trended downward, from 6.1 percent in 1972 to 4.0 percent in 2003 (figure 1 and table 2). This decline occurred primarily from 1972 through 1990. Despite year-to-year fluctuations, there has been no overall pattern of increase or decrease in event dropout rates since 1990. Most recently, there was a decrease in event dropout rates between 2001 and 2002, and no detectable change in rates from 2002 to 2003, although the 2003 rate remained lower than the rate registered in 2001.
  • Event dropout rates by sex: There was no measurable difference in the 2003 event dropout rates for males and females, a pattern generally found over the last 30 years (tables 1-A and 3). Exceptions to this pattern occurred in four years—1974, 1976, 1978, and 2000—when males were more likely than females to drop out.
  • Event dropout rates by race/ethnicity:5 Between October 2002 and October 2003, Hispanic high school students were more likely to drop out than White students and Asian students (table 1-A). The event dropout rate for Hispanics was 7.1 percent compared with rates of 3.2 percent for Whites and 2.4 percent for Asians. Black students and students who indicated more than one race had event dropout rates of 4.8 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively. Neither of these rates was measurably different from the rates for the other racial/ethnic groups.6

    Similar racial/ethnic differences in event dropout rates were observed between October 2001 and October 2002 (table 1-B). The exception was that differences were detected between Whites and Blacks, with Blacks being more likely to drop out.
  • Event dropout rates by family income: In 2003, students living in low-income families were approximately 5 times more likely than their peers in high-income families to be event dropouts (table 1-A).7

    A decline in event dropout rates for students from low-, middle-, and high-income families occurred from the mid-1970s to 1990 (figure 1 and table 4). Since 1990, event dropout rates have fluctuated between 3.6 and 5.7 percent for middle-income students and between 1.0 and 2.7 percent for high-income students, without a consistent upward or downward trend for either group (table 4). However, for low-income students, event dropout rates increased from 9.5 percent in 1990 to 13.3 percent in 1995 and then declined to 7.5 percent in 2003.
  • Event dropout rates by age: Students who pursue a high school education past the typical high school age are at higher risk than others of becoming an event dropout (table 1-A). The 2003 event dropout rates for students in the typical age range for fall high school enrollment (ages 15 through 17) were lower than those for older students (ages 19 through 24). Specifically, 2.5 percent of 15- to 16-year-olds and 2.9 percent of 17-year-olds dropped out in the 1-year reference period, compared with 5.7 percent of 19-year-olds and 20.8 percent of 20- through 24-year-olds.8
  • Event dropout rates by region: In 2003, no differences were detected in the event dropout rates for the four regions of the country (table 1-A). In 2002, however, the South registered a higher event dropout rate than the Midwest (4.4 versus 2.6 percent) (table 1-B).


5 Beginning in 2003, CPS respondents were able to indicate more than one race. Only 2 percent of 15- through 24-year olds who were enrolled in high school in 2002 (the base population for the 2003 event dropout rate) reported more than one race (table 1-A). The 2003 tables report data for five racial/ethnic categories: White, non-Hispanic; Black, non-Hispanic; Asian/Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic; Hispanic; and more than one race. The first three categories consist of individuals who identified as only one race, and who did not identify as Hispanic. A fourth category consists of Hispanics of all races and racial combinations. The "more than one race" category consists of non-Hispanics who identified as being multiracial. Due to small sample sizes, American Indians/Alaska Natives who reported only one race are included in the total but are not shown separately. Prior to 2003, respondents could indicate only one race. The four racial/ethnic categories reported in this publication for 2002 and earlier data are White, non-Hispanic; Black, non-Hispanic; Hispanic (any race); and Asian/Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic; American Indians/Alaska Natives are included in the total but are not shown separately. For ease of reading, the shorter terms White, Black, and Asian/Pacific Islander are used for both 2003 data and for 2002 and earlier data.
6 Due to a small sample size, the standard error for students who identify with more than one race is relatively large, which makes difficult the detection of statistically significant differences. The standard error for Asians was also relatively large because of small sample sizes. This may explain why no difference was detected between Blacks and Asians in terms of event dropout rates.
7 "Low income" is defined here as the lowest 20 percent of all family incomes, while "high income" refers to the top 20 percent of all family incomes. In 2003, low-income families included those with $16,605 or less in family income, while high-income families included those with $75,451 or more in family income.
8 Eighteen-year-olds represent a transitional population in terms of high school education. Many are still in high school, while a large proportion has entered postsecondary education or the labor market (U.S. Census Bureau 2003). As such, they are not included with those who are age 17 and under, or age 19 and over, in this analysis.