Cutting the Dropout Rate: Are We Ready for Success?

The Pew Research Center recently released an analysis of high school dropout rates drawn from the most recent American Community Survey data of the U.S. Census Bureau. The reported results raise a question of whether we are ready for success.  What’s next?

Author Richard Fry[1] writes that the national high school dropout rate has reached a record low of 7% of the 18-24 year-old population in the U.S., down from 12% in 2000.  The reduction, according to the Pew analysis, is due primarily to substantial reductions in the dropout rates for Black and Hispanic youth.  For example, since 1993, the Hispanic dropout rate in the U.S. has declined from 33% to 14%.  The Black dropout rate declined over the same period from 16% to 8%. The Black dropout rate has declined by nearly 50% just since 2000. Dropout rates for Non-Hispanic whites have also declined over the 1993-2013 period from 9% to 5%, and Asians from 5% to 4%. While Hispanic and Black youth still account for the largest percentage of high school dropouts, it is clear that more students and more students of color are staying in school and graduating.

What is particularly remarkable about the significant decline in the Hispanic dropout rate is that the overall Hispanic youth population has increased by 50% since 2000, according to the Pew analysis. Just since 2000, the number of Hispanic high school completers has increased from 60% to 79% in 2013.

Black high school completion has also increased since 1993 from 75% to 82%.  Non-Hispanic white completion increased from 87% to 89%; and Asian completion increased from 1999 from 90% to 91%.  The Pew analysis reports the Hispanic completion rate at a record high for the U.S.  Hispanic students currently make up 25% of the U.S. high school population with that number projected to be 30% by 2022. Fry cites Pew Research surveys that report high rankings for education as an important issue, along with health care and immigration policy, among Hispanics in the U.S.

The increased expectations for education attainment has also been reflected in post-secondary enrollment with Hispanic college enrollment at 18% in 2013, up from 12% in 2009.  As local college and university, state, and federal opportunities continue to expand, this number will continue to increase.  An exception to the positive growth seen in these figures is the relatively low numbers of Hispanic students completing post-secondary and earning a degree. The Census Data reported by Fry place that number at just 9% of the population aged 25-29 completing a bachelor’s degree.  This signals that current efforts among high schools, post-secondary institutions and state policy makers focusing on degree attainment are addressing the next major equity hurdle in education.

What Happens When Students are More Successful?

Going a bit deeper into the 2013 American Community Survey data points to key indicators that make this improvement in high school completion particularly encouraging.  Looking at overall Educational Attainment for the U.S. in the ACS 2013 data[2], 85.3% of current 18-24 year olds have attained high school graduation or higher compared to 81.1% of the population 65 years of age or higher.  Thus, more young people entering the work force are better educated at a younger age than their retiring counterparts.  Increasing the educational level of the workforce increases opportunity for individuals, as well as, benefits employers with better educated, adaptable and talented employees able to adapt to new challenges. This helps sustain growth in the economy through higher employee earnings and more business innovation as older workers retire.

As the table below indicates, the relationship between the level of educational attainment and poverty remains clear in the current census data as it has historically.

Poverty Rate for the Population 25 years and over for whom Poverty Status as Determined by Educational Attainment

Less than high school graduate 27.7%
High School Graduate 14.6%
Some College or Associate’s Degree 10.9%
Bachelor’s Degree 4.8%

Source: American Community Survey, U.S. Census, Educational Attainment, 2013 1-year Estimates

The data indicate a 13.1 percentage point reduction in the poverty rate for completing high school and a 16.8 percentage point reduction in poverty for some college.  The most dramatic differences in poverty status are between adults who have a bachelor’s degree (4.8%) and those with less than a high school diploma (27.7%), implying that individuals are almost 6 times as likely to be in poverty without a high school diploma as a person with a bachelor’s degree.

This also translates into increased earnings for young people entering the workforce.  Looking at the table below, there is clear benefit to median earnings in the most recent 12 month period based upon educational attainment. At each increase of level of educational attainment, median incomes increase.

Median Earnings in the Past 12 months (in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars)

Population 25 years and over with earnings $35,597
Less than high school graduate $20,149
High School Graduate (includes equivalency) $27,350
Some College or Associate’s Degree $32,387
Bachelor’s Degree $50,050
Graduate or Professional Degree $65,565

Source: American Community Survey, U.S. Census, Educational Attainment, 2013 1-year Estimates

A key variable in this complex mix is the growing cost of higher education.  The burgeoning levels of student loan debt in post-secondary education coupled with reductions in state and federal aid and increasing tuition costs have raised important issues of access and opportunity for a student body made up from families with fewer personal resources.  A key to maintaining the benefits to society of a well-educated population is to keep the cost of education affordable.

Are We Ready for College to be the New Normal?

We find ourselves in a place that is not unlike other stages of U.S. history. Although it has taken constitutional amendments, treaties, court cases, law suits and, even, the presence of federal troops, the American public education system has been a gateway through which individuals have found access to opportunity.   However, our targets are changing.  For decades, especially since the anti-poverty movements of the 1960’s, the emphasis on equal educational opportunity, and the school reform policies of the last 15 years, we have been primarily focused on student completion of high school as an over-arching system goal.  Although the Pew analysis does not indicate that we have completed that mission, it is clear that significant progress has been made.

It is well established that increasing educational attainment benefits both individuals, via increased opportunities and earnings; and society in general, via increased productivity and economic growth, as well as, reductions in costs for social services.

However, these recent data signal a new and ambitious target.  The demand for more access to higher education services by an increasing number of high school graduates from diverse backgrounds is shifting the historical focus from high school completion to post-secondary completion. The new normal is moving to post-secondary completion as the system target in both career and technical education and in traditional academic degrees. However, the Pew data adds a critically important dimension to this scenario.  The increase in post-secondary demand and attainment will be impacted by increasing numbers of students of color, students of different languages, cultures and ethnicities.

Two implications suggest themselves: first, enlightened state policy and targeted investments are needed to open more post-secondary opportunities to an increasingly diverse population including tuition support; and academic, social and cultural support for diverse and first generation students.  Second, the institutions of higher education themselves are challenged to create degree programs; instructional methods; faculty cultural competence; and degree pathways among high schools, community colleges and 4-year institutions targeted to the success of an increasingly diverse group of students who are setting their sights beyond high school completion.

Historically, elementary and secondary schools have been challenged with adapting to new languages, cultures, races and ethnicities entering the American system through the local public school.  Although improving those outcomes remains a challenge, the Pew analysis compels us to consider what happens to an increasingly diverse student population when they graduate from high school and seek post-secondary education? The aspirations and futures of individuals, as well as, our collective well-being will be significantly impacted by how we answer that question.


Patrick Burk, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Leadership and Policy

[1] U.S. High School Dropout Rate Reaches Record Low, Driven by Improvements among Hispanics, Blacks, Pew Research Center, published online, October 2, 2014, at

[2] American Community Survey Fact Finder, #S1501: Educational Attainment, U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 1-yr Estimates


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