When high school is too much: 1 in 4 don’t graduate, report finds

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

The nation is making progress in increasing the high school graduation rate, according to a study released Monday, yet 1 in 4 Americans don’t complete high school.

The report, released by advocacy groups, was presented at the Grad Nation education summit in Washington, D.C. The event itself was organized by the America’s Promise Alliance, founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The national graduation rate increased by 3.5 percentage points between 2001 and 2009, the report found. The graduation rate rose from 72% to 75.5% in 2009 -– meaning that roughly one of every four American students dropped out of high school. The groups’ goal is 90% by 2020.


“The good news is that some states have made improvements in their graduation rates, showing it can be done. But the data also indicate that if we are to meet our national goals by 2020, we will have to accelerate our rate of progress, particularly in the states that have shown little progress,” said Robert Balfanz, director of Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University, and co-author of the Building a Grad Nation report.

In addition to the center and America’s Promise Alliance, other groups involved in the report were Civic Enterprises and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report was sponsored by AT&T with additional support from the Pearson Foundation.

High school graduation rates are considered a key indicator of future student success and earning potential. In his State of the Union address, President Obama encouraged states to pass laws to require students to stay in school until they graduate or they turn 18. It is estimated that high school graduates will earn $130,000 more over their lifetimes than dropouts.

The report found that 24 states increased their high school graduation rates. In addition, the number of high schools graduating 60% or fewer students on time -- so-called dropout factories -- fell from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,550 in 2010. The authors estimate that 790,000 fewer students attended a dropout factory in 2010 than in 2002.

The increase in graduation rates was mainly because of improvement in 12 states, with New York showing growth of 13 percentage points and Tennessee showing growth of 17.8 percentage points since 2002, according to the report. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Kentucky were among the top dozen.

Ten states -- Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island and Utah -– saw declines in graduation rates.

Only one state, Wisconsin, has reached the 90% plateau, though Vermont is getting close, the report notes.

If every state had a graduation rate of 90% or better, 580,000 additional students would have graduated in the class of 2011, increasing the gross domestic product by $6.6 billion and generating $1.8 billion in additional revenue as a result of increased economic activity, the report estimates.


[For the record, 5:15 p.m., March 19: An earlier version of this post referred to the improvements in New York and Tennessee as percentages, instead of percentage points.]


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