Trends in High School Dropout Rates

Trends in High School Dropout Rates.

Much attention is currently being paid to preparing students for college and career success. Dropping out of high school has a range of negative outcomes ranging from diminished lifetime earnings to a greater propensity to land in prison.

A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) titled Trends in High School Dropout and Completions Rates in the United States: 2013 Compendium Report, reminds us of the approximately $680,000 income loss over a lifetime between a dropout and a person who has at least a high school credential. And the percentage of dropouts who are unemployed is higher than those who have a high school credential.

Dropouts are also a disproportionate percentage of people who are institutionalized. Researchers estimate that a high school dropout costs the economy approximately $260,000 over his or her lifetime as a result of lower tax contribution and a higher reliance on Medicaid, Medicare, and welfare as well as higher rates of criminal activity.

  • The “event dropout rate” (percentage of students between 15 and 24 years old in grades 10 to 12 who leave school between the beginning of one year and the beginning of the next without earning a high school diploma or a GED) is based on data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS). Between October 2012 and October 2013, approximately 508,000 15- to 24- year-olds left school without obtaining a high school credential. These “event dropouts” represent 4.7 % of the 10.9 million students enrolled in grades 10-12. Event dropout rates have been trending down from 6.3 % in 1973 to 4.7 % in 2013
  • In 2013, there were no measurable differences between dropouts of different ethnicities except for Asian youth. Dropout rates for Black (5.8 %), Hispanic (5.7 %), and White (4.3 %) were relatively constant with lower rates for Asian youth (1.8 %)
  • There was also no measurable difference in 2013 dropouts between male and female students
  • However, dropouts from low-income families were roughly twice as high as the rates for their peers from higher-income families. The event dropout rate for youth from higher-income families was 3.0 %, while it was 4.9 and 7.2 % for middle- and low-income families respectively.
  • Age makes a difference. The 2013 dropout rate was lower for 15- to 18-year-old students than it was for 20- to 24-year-old students.This broke out as follows:
      • 5.2 % of 15- to 16-year-olds
      • 4.0 % of 17- year-olds
      • 2.9 % of 18-year-olds
      • 14.4 % of 20- through 24-year-olds
  • Dropout rates also varied by geographic region with the South in the lead at 5.8 %, the West at 4.9 %, the Midwest at 4.1 % and the Northeast at 2.2 %

Additional Dropout Rates

 While the “event dropout rate” is the commonly used measure, there are other types of dropout rates. The report continues by detailing the “status” dropout rate, which is the number of 16- to 24-year olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential as a percentage of the total number of civilian, non-institutionalized youth. In October 2013, approximately 2.6 million 16- to 24-year olds were not enrolled in high school and had not earned a high school diploma or alternative credential. These dropouts accounted for 6.8 percent of the 38.3 million non-institutionalized, civilian 16- to 24-year olds living in the U.S. This dropout rate has declined over the past ten years from 9.9 to 6.8 percent.

There is also a measurement called the “status completion rate,” which refers to all 18- to 24- year old civilians, who hold a high school diploma or alternative credential. This rate is 92.0% – calculated from the CPS data. It’s important to note that this statistic is not the opposite of the status dropout rate. There is a difference in the age groupings and one includes current high school students and one does not. Over the last 40 years, the status completion rate has increased from 83.7 percent to 92.0 percent.


The 96-page report slices and dices the available data in enough detail to satisfy the data requirements for educational marketers focused on middle and high school students. The good news is that graduation rates are up by every measure and this is a long-term trend. Within the different populations highlighted in the report, particularly English Language Learners, there are opportunities to provide products and services that will increase graduation rates of these students with long-reaching benefits to them and our economy.