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

NCES 2011-012
December 2010

National Status Dropout Rates

The status dropout rate measures the percentage of individuals who are not enrolled in high school and who do not have a high school credential. The status dropout rate is higher than the event rate in a given year because the status dropout rate includes all dropouts in a particular age range, regardless of when or where they last attended school, including individuals who may have never attended school in the United States. Based on the 16- through 24-year-old age range, the measure provides an indicator of the proportion of young people who lack a high school credential. While useful for measuring overall educational attainment among young adults in the United States, the status dropout rate is not useful as an indicator of the performance of schools because it includes those who never attended school in the United States. Using data from the CPS, the status dropout rate in this report shows the percentage of young people ages 16 through 24 who are out of school and who have not earned a high school diploma or equivalency credential (e.g., a GED).

  • Status dropout rates: In October 2008, approximately 3.0 million 16- through 24-year-olds were not enrolled in high school and had not earned a high school diploma or alternative credential (table 6). These status dropouts accounted for 8.0 percent of the 38 million noninstitutionalized, civilian 16- through 24-year-olds living in the United States.

    Among all individuals in this age group, status dropout rates trended downward between 1972 and 2008, from 14.6 percent to 8.0 percent (figure 2 and table 7). The status dropout rate of 2008 was lower than that of 1990, unlike the event dropout rate where no differences were detected between these 2 years.
  • Status dropout rates by sex: Males ages 16–24 had higher status dropout rates than females in 2008 (8.5 percent vs. 7.5 percent) (table 6).
  • Status dropout rates by race/ethnicity: The 2008 status dropout rates for persons of two or more races (4.2 percent), Asian/Pacific Islanders (4.4 percent), and Whites (4.8 percent) were the lowest among the racial/ethnic groups considered in this report. The Black status dropout rate was lower than the rate for Hispanics (9.9 percent and 18.3 percent, respectively) (table 6).

    Since 1972 the difference between the status dropout rates of Whites and Blacks has narrowed (figure 2 and table 8). This narrowing of the gap occurred during the 1980s, with no measurable change during the 1970s or between 1990 and 2008.

    The percentage of Hispanics ages 16–24 who were dropouts was consistently higher than that of Blacks and Whites throughout the 36-year period of 1972–2008 (figure 2 and table 8).  White and Black status dropout rates have fallen significantly since 1972; the rates for Whites fell from 12.3 to 4.8 percent and the rates for Blacks declined from 21.3 to 9.9 percent. Between 1972 and 1990, Hispanic status dropout rates were generally consistent, but since 1990 they have demonstrated a downward trend, falling from 32.4 percent to 18.3 percent.

    In 2008, some 32.8 percent of Hispanic 16- through 24-year-olds born outside the United States were status high school dropouts (table 6). Hispanics born in the United States had lower status dropout rates than immigrant Hispanics (10.5 percent and 10.8 percent for “first generation” and “second generation or higher,” respectively).18 In each “recency of immigration” category in table 6, Hispanic youth had higher status dropout rates than non-Hispanic youth.
  • Status dropout rates by sex and race/ethnicity: Dropout rates for Whites and Hispanics varied by sex (figure 3). Among White students, 5.4 percent of males were status dropouts in 2008 compared with 4.2 percent of females. Hispanic males also had higher status dropout rates than their female counterparts (19.9 percent vs. 16.7 percent, respectively). No differences by sex were detected in status dropout rates for Blacks, Asian/Pacific Islanders, American Indian/Alaska Natives, or persons of two or more races.
  • Status dropout rates by age: Persons ages 16 and 17 had lower status dropout rates in 2008 (2.2 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively) than 18- through 24-year-olds (7.8 percent to 9.9 percent), at least in part because most 16- and 17-year-olds were still actively pursuing a high school diploma (table 6).19
  • Status dropout rates by region: In 2008, the Northeast had the lowest status dropout rates (5.6 percent) and the South and the West had the highest (8.8 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively) (table 6). Dropouts were disproportionately concentrated in the South and the West. In 2008, some 35.9 percent of 16- through 24-year-olds lived in the South while 39.6 percent of all status dropouts lived there. Similarly, 23.8 percent of the 16- through 24-year-old population lived in the West but 27.0 percent of status dropouts lived there. In contrast, dropouts were underrepresented in the Northeast. Some 17.9 percent of 16- through 24-year-olds lived in the Northeast, but 12.5 percent of status dropouts lived there.


18 Individuals defined as “first generation” were born in the 50 states or the District of Columbia, and one or both of their parents were born outside the 50 states or the District of Columbia. Individuals defined as “second generation or higher” were born in the 50 states or the District of Columbia, as were both of their parents.
19 In 2008, data from the CPS show that high school enrollment rates by age group were 95.2 percent for 16-year-olds, 88.8 percent for 17-year-olds, 27.7 percent for 18-year-olds, 6.6 percent for 19-year-olds, and 0.9 percent for 20- through 24-year-olds (estimates not shown in tables).