Academic journal article Education Next

Graduations on the Rise: The 2000s Saw Boost in U.S. Students Completing High School

Academic journal article Education Next

Graduations on the Rise: The 2000s Saw Boost in U.S. Students Completing High School

Article excerpt

In his 2009 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama challenged Americans to "commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. ... Every American," he said, "will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country." During most of the last century, steady increases in the proportion of the labor force that had graduated from high school fueled the nation's economic growth and rising incomes. The high school graduation rate for teenagers in the United States rose from 6 percent to 80 percent from 1900 to 1970. By the late 1960s, the U.S. ranked first among countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on this measure of educational attainment.

Between 1970 and 2000, however, the U.S. high-school graduation stagnated while in many other OECD countries it rose markedly. By 2000, the high school graduation rate in the United States ranked 13th among the 19 OECD countries for which comparable data are available.

Until quite recently, it appeared that this long stagnation had continued into the 21st century. Yet evidence from two independent sources now shows that, in fact, the graduation rate increased substantially between 2000 and 2010. The improvements were especially pronounced among blacks and Hispanics, who have long been far less likely to complete high school than their white peers.

Yet despite these encouraging trends, substantial graduation-rate gaps along lines of race, income, and gender persist. Moreover, graduation rates in other OECD countries also increased in the past decade. As a result, the U.S. high school graduation rate in 2010 was still below the OECD average.

What might explain these patterns in American graduation rates? Researchers from several social science disciplines have studied teenagers' decisions about whether to persist in high school and earn a diploma. Sociologists tend to emphasize the roles of peer groups and school cultures. Many psychologists have examined teenagers' decisions from a developmental perspective, recently enriched by evidence from neuroscience on brain development and the attraction of risk-taking during the teenage years. Ethnographers from various disciplines point out that for many youth, dropping out is a process rather than an explicit decision: irregular attendance leads to failed courses and eventually to the perception that the obstacles to graduation are overwhelming.

Economists, meanwhile, typically focus on factors that teenagers may consider in deciding whether to remain in school for another year. That is, most economic models posit that high school students are rational agents who weigh the expected benefits and costs. While there is no question that a great many teenagers do not plan beyond the next weekend, the relevant question when it comes to explaining trends is whether the degree of teenage myopia has changed over time.

As we demonstrate below, the available evidence from the economic perspective suggests that two factors are critical in explaining the stagnation that persisted until 2000: the growing availability of the GED (General Educational Development) credential and increases in the nonmonetary costs of completing high school. Even though high school graduates earned higher wages than dropouts, additional requirements for a high school diploma counteracted what were substantial economic returns to the credential. More difficult to explain is the recent increase in the graduation rate. Improvements in both school quality and the circumstances of at-risk students outside of school may have played a role.

Measuring Completion

Graduation rates can be calculated in various ways using various sources, including the U.S. Census and related household surveys; administrative data from school systems on the number of enrollees and graduates each year; and (more recently) longitudinal databases that track individual students over time. …

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