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Dropout Rates in the United States: 1994


Much of the interest in measuring dropouts stems from a concern over how well prepared young adults are for entry into the work force. As the emphasis on skilled labor and technology increases in the work place, a high school education serves more and more as a minimum requirement for entry into the labor force. This then leads to interest in a measure of the number of young adults who have completed a high school program.

Graduation and Completion Rates

The majority of young adults complete the required secondary school coursework and graduate with a regular high school diploma. Strictly speaking, a high school graduation rate is based on students receiving regular high school diplomas. In 1994, 79.4 percent of the young adults ages 18 through 24, who were not still enrolled in a high school program, were graduates holding regular high school diplomas (table 14).

table thumbnail Table 14-High school completion rates and method of completion of 18- through 24-year-olds not currently enrolled in high school or below, by race-ethnicity: October 1990 through October 1994

Other young adults complete their high school education by successfully passing an exam, such as the General Educational Development (GED), required for an alternative credential. The size of this group is relatively small; in 1994, 6.4 percent of the 18- through 24-year-olds who were not still enrolled in a high school program reported holding an alternative certificate.

The high school completion rate combines these recipients of alternative certificates along with students graduating with regular high school diplomas, to provide a measure of the young adults who have completed a high school program and are ready to enter the labor force or move on to a postsecondary educational program. In 1994, 85.8 percent of the young adults ages 18 through 24, who were not still enrolled in a high school program, held a high school credential. This rate measures the high school completion status of young adults, regardless of the year of high school completion./18 Over the last 18 years the completion rate has increased. The 1994 high school status completion rate is higher than the recorded lows of 82.8 observed in 1972 and of 83.1 observed in 1979 (figure 4 and table A45).

chart thumbnail Figure 4-High school completion rates for all 18- through 24-year-olds, by race-ethnicity: October 1972 through October 1994

The high school completion rates of whites have been consistently higher than those for blacks, with 90.7 percent of the white 18- through 24-year-olds reported as completing high school by 1994, compared to 83.3 percent of black 18- through 24-year-olds (table 15). However, while white completion rates are still higher than black rates, the gap between black and white completion rates narrowed over time. The high school completion rate for Hispanic 18- through 24-year-olds is even lower, at 61.8 percent.

table thumbnail Table 15-Completion rates and number and distribution of completers, ages 18 through 24 years old, by sex, race-ethnicity, and region: October 1994

Consistent with the geographic patterns observed in the status dropout rates, the high school completion rates are lower in the South and West than they are in the Northeast and Midwest.

Completion Rates by State

A review of completion rates computed for individual states (table 16) shows a 17.7 percentage point spread between the highest and lowest observed estimates. In particular, the rates range from 78.9 percent in California and 79.4 percent in Georgia to 95.9 percent in Nebraska and 96.6 percent in North Dakota./19

These completion rates reflect the experiences of all 18- through 24-year-olds living in each state at the time of the October data collection. Although dependent students are included in their parent's household, not their school residence, some young adults move from one state to another to seek employment. This should be taken into account in evaluating the rates for individual states.

table thumbnail Table 16-High school completion rates of 18- through 24-year-olds, by state, October 1989-91 and 1992-94


Overall, status dropout rates have declined and high school completion rates have increased since the early 1970s. But it is still the case that in 1994 Hispanic students were more likely to be dropouts and less likely to complete high school than black students; and black students were more likely to be dropouts and less likely to complete high school than white students. Regional differences, which are influenced by the racial differences, show higher dropout rates and lower high school completion rates in the South and West.

Despite these relative differences, in absolute terms the largest numbers of status dropouts are white (45.9 percent) and live in families with middle incomes (58.0 percent). In addition, nearly one-third (30.2 percent) of all dropouts live in either the northeast or midwestern regions of the country.

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