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Child and teacher, circa 1940
10.17.03
Society and Community:
American Schools in Crisis?
More on This Story:
Dropout Rates


Parents and high school counselors are not the only ones who worry about the fate of high school dropouts. Educators, employers, researchers and politicians all call on dropout figures to make their particular case. What is certain is that not having a high school diploma has a very real effect on earning power and rates of employment. The business community is especially concerned for the future of the American workforce, as the economy increasingly requires a workforce of greater education and skill.

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the 2001 unemployment rate for adults over 25 without a high school diploma was 7.2 percent. That figure dropped to 4.2 percent for high school graduates without any college and to 2.3 percent for those with a bachelors degree or higher.
  • Men and women aged 25–34 who dropped out of high school earned 27 and 30 percent less, respectively, than their peers who had a high school diploma or GED.
  • Studies have shown that high school graduates are 11 percent more likely to vote than non-graduates.
  • Non-graduates are 20 percent more likely to report themselves in very good or excellent health.

Although there is agreement that lower dropout rates benefit society, counting rates of dropouts in the U.S. is a surprisingly contentious process. Two recent studies have come up with substantially different high school completion rates than those of the U.S. Bureau of Education Statistics (BECS). The conservative Manhattan Institute's 2001 report found a 1998 national high school completion rate of 71 percent, the Bureau of Education Statistics rate for the same year was 86 percent. A 2002 study published by the Business Roundtable, a group made up of many of the country's most powerful CEO's, contends that "the status dropout rates of the U.S. Department of Education...substantially underestimate the number of youth who leave our nation's high schools without obtaining a regular high school diploma."

Why the discrepancies? As NOW's piece "New Math?" shows, some undercounting may come from school districts themselves. Additionally, critics like the Manhattan Institute and the Business Roundtable say that the BECS rate misses many dropouts. Some of the reasons are listed below:

  • Each year 14 or more states do not report their state dropout rates using common definitions and data collection standards.
  • Individuals with a GED certificate are counted as high school graduates, though they did not receive a regular high school diploma. Critics contend that GED holders should not be counted as the equivalent of high school graduates, given that they fare worse in the labor market and in post-secondary education than individuals who get regular high school diplomas.
  • Students who become incarcerated are not counted, though many are dropouts.
  • Poor and minority teens are not always counted in household surveys because they may have transient living conditions and/or employment status.
  • The DOE calculates dropout and completion rates based on all 16-24 year olds, although many 18 and older will eventually drop out.
The two studies cited below chose different methods to calculate high school completion rates. The study "High School Graduation Rates in the United States," November 2001, by the Manhattan Institute used a cohort method. The researcher first tracked eight-grade public school enrollment in in 1993 and compared that with diplomas awarded in the spring of 1998, correcting for student population changes in each jurisdiction. The study sponsored by The Business Roundtable, "The Hidden Crisis in the High School Dropout," February 2003, compared the annual number of diplomas awarded by public and private high schools to the number of 17- or 18-year-olds in America. View some of the numbers from all three sources below.



High School Completion Rates, 1998

StateNational Center for Education StatisticsHigh School Graduation Rates, Manhattan Institute StudyHidden Crises in High School Dropouts, Business Roundtable
National Rate85.7%71%71.3%
Alabama81.6%62%62.8%
Alaska93.3%67%65.1%
Arizona73.5%59%55.8%
Arkansas84.1%72%74.3%
California82.5%68%68.1%
Colorado81.6%68%65.1%
Connecticut91.7%75%87.6%
Delaware91.0%73%75.5%
District of Columbia88.0%59%69.3%
Florida84.6%59%63.3%
Georgia83.5%54%58.5%
Hawaii91.8%69%72.2%
Idaho86.4%78%72.1%
Illinois87.1%78%75.5%
Indiana89.4%74%73.2%
Iowa90.8%93%83.6%
Kansas90.4%76%73.4%
Kentucky86.2%71%70.0%
Louisiana82.1%69%62.5%
Maine94.5%78%82.6%
Maryland87.4%75%81.3%
Massachusetts90.9%75%81.7%
Michigan89.2%75%72.9%
Minnesota91.9%83%85.3%
Mississippi82.3%62%60.4%
Missouri92.6%75%74.1%
Montana91.1%83%78.8%
Nebraska91.3%85%85.9%
Nevada77.9%58%64.7%
New Hampshire85.1%71%84.4%
New Jersey90.1%75%79.1%
New Mexico83.0%65%66.9%
New York86.3%70%70.5%
North Carolina86.1%63%64.7%
North Dakota94.4%88%85.1%
Ohio87.7%77%77.0%
Oklahoma85.7%74%73.8%
Oregon82.3%67%64.7%
Pennsylvania89.0%82%83.1%
Rhode Island87.9%72%77.4%
South Carolina85.1%62%60.1%
South Dakota92.0%80%73.3%
Tennessee89.0%60%62.5%
Texas79.4%67%67.4%
Utah90.0%81%75.7%
Vermont90.8%84%92.1%
Virginia87.3%74%72.5%
Washington89.6%70%73.0%
West Virginia90.0%82%80.0%
Wisconsin90.0%85%80.4%
Wyoming86.5%81%74.4%

Sources: "High School Graduation Rates in the United States," November 2001, Center for Civic Innovation, The Manhattan Institute; Dropout Rates in the United States, 2000, Bureau of Education Statistics; "The Hidden Crisis in the High School Dropout," February 2003, The Business Roundtable; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Employment Statistics; Learner Outcomes, Bureau of Education Statistics

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