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Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2008

NCES 2011-012
December 2010

National Event Dropout Rates

The national event dropout rate presented here is based on data from the CPS and is an estimate of 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 an alternative credential (e.g., a 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 2007 to October 2008).11 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, and students may reenter the school system after that time. More detail about the definition and computation of the event dropout rate and other rates in this report can be found in appendix A.

  • Event dropout rates: On average, 3.5 percent of students who were enrolled in public or private high schools in October 2007 left school before October 2008 without completing a high school program (table 1). No measurable change was detected in the event dropout rate between 2007 and 2008 (3.5 percent in both years); however, since 1972, event dropout rates have trended downward, from 6.1 percent in 1972 to 3.5 percent in 2008 (figure 1 and table 2).12 Declines occurred primarily from 1972 through 1990, when the rate reached 4.0 percent. From 1990 through 1995, event rates increased, but then trended downward again from 1995 through 2008. These fluctuations during the 1990s and early to mid-2000s resulted in no measurable difference between the 1990 and 2008 event dropout rates.
  • Event dropout rates by sex: There was no measurable difference in the 2008 event dropout rates for males and females, a pattern generally found since 1972 (tables 1 and 3). Exceptions to this pattern occurred in 4 years—1974, 1976, 1978, and 2000—when males had measurably higher event dropout rates than females.
  • Event dropout rates by race/ethnicity:13 Between October 2007 and October 2008, Black and Hispanic students in public and private high schools had higher event dropout rates than White students (table 1). The event dropout rate was 6.4 percent for Blacks and 5.3 percent for Hispanics, compared with 2.3 percent for Whites. The general downward trend in event dropout rates over the three and a half decade period from 1972 through 2008 observed in the overall population was also found among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics (table 3).14 However, the decreases happened at different times over this 36-year period for these racial/ethnic groups. The pattern found among Whites mirrored the overall population: a decrease in event rates from 1972 through 1990, an increase from 1990 through 1995, and another decrease from 1995 through 2008. Blacks also experienced a decline from 1972 through 1990, and an increase from 1990 through 1995, but their event dropout rates fluctuated and no measurable trend was found between 1995 and 2008. Hispanics, on the other hand, experienced no measurable change in their event dropout rates from 1972 through 1990, and no measurable change from 1990 through 1995, but did experience a decline from 1995 through 2008.
  • Event dropout rates by family income: In 2008, the event dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about four and one-half times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (8.7 percent vs. 2.0 percent) (table 1).15

    Students from low-, middle-, and high-income families experienced an overall decline in event dropout rates during the three-decade period of the mid-1970s through 2008 (figure 1 and table 4). All three groups of students experienced declines in event dropout rates from 1975 through 1990. Those from low-income families had rates that fell from 15.7 percent to 9.5 percent. Students from middle-income families had rates fall from 6.0 percent to 4.3 percent and those from high-income families had rates fall from 2.6 percent to 1.1 percent. From 1990 to 1995, students from low-income families experienced an upward trend in rates from 9.5 percent to 13.3 percent, while their peers from middle- and high-income families experienced no measurable change. In the last 13 years (1995–2008), the event rates for low-income and middle-income families trended downward. While event dropout rates for students from high-income families fluctuated and no measurable trend was found during the same 13-year period, there was no measurable difference between their 1995 and 2008 rates (2.0 percent in both years).
  • Event dropout rates by age: Students who pursued a high school education past the typical high school age were at higher risk than others of becoming an event dropout (table 1). The 2008 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 20 through 24). Specifically, 2.4 percent of 15- through 16-year-olds and 3.1 percent of 17-year-olds dropped out in the 1-year reference period, compared with 14.9 percent of 20- through 24-year-olds.
  • Event dropout rates by region: In 2008, the event dropout rates for high school students in the South (4.3 percent) were higher than for their peers in the Northeast (2.3 percent) and Midwest (2.7 percent), and event dropout rates for students in the West (4.1 percent) were higher than those for students in the Northeast (table 1).


11 Data about 9th-grade dropouts are not available in the Current Population Survey (see appendix A for more information). The state event dropout rates for public high school students presented later in this report are based on the Common Core of Data, which includes 9th-graders.
12 Trend analyses were conducted using regressions. See appendix A for more details.
13 All of the 2008 tables report data for the following four racial/ethnic categories: White (non-Hispanic), Black (non-Hispanic), Asian/Pacific Islander (non-Hispanic), and Hispanic. 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. For 2008 status dropouts and status completion rates (tables 6 and 9), results for two additional race/ethnic groups are presented: American Indian/Alaska Native (non-Hispanic) and persons of two or more races (non-Hispanic). Because of small sample sizes, American Indians/Alaska Natives and persons of two or more races are included in the total but not shown separately for 2008 event dropout rates and event dropout, status dropout, and status completion results for prior years. For simplicity, the terms “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “American Indian/Alaska Native,” and “two or more races” are used in the text of this report without the “(non-Hispanic)” label.
14 The trend analyses conducted to examine this three-and-a-half-decade period are based on annual rate estimates for each year from 1972 through 2008. Separate trend analyses were also conducted for each racial/ethnic group separately for trends across the three shorter time periods indicated in the bullet: 1972–1990, 1990–1995, and 1995–2008. Because of small sample sizes for many of the earlier years, reliable trend analyses could not be conducted for Asians/Pacific Islanders, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and persons of two or more races.
15 “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 2008, low-income families included those with $18,985 or less in family income, while high-income families included those with $88,080 or more in family income. For respondents missing data for family income (17.4 percent of the weighted sample in table 1), cold-deck procedures were used to impute data.