Select Page

During his campaign, Barack Obama alleged that only 70% of high school students graduate with a diploma. This astonished me so I dug further.

Overall, I have a pretty positive view of the education system in this country.

There is essentially no debating that the United States’ higher education system runs laps around the rest of the world. By one oft-cited study, the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, the United States has 17 of the top 20, 58 of the top 100 and 98 of the top 200 universities in the world. American universities employ 70% of the world’s Nobel prize winners.

Looking at the traditional university system does not give an accurate picture of higher education in the United States however. Only about 100 of America’s 3,200 higher-education institutions are research universities. There are approximately 630 public four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Many of the rest are community colleges that produce little research and offer only two-year courses. In 2001, total higher education enrollment in the United States was 16.3 million students. Of those, only 9.6 million attending public or private four-year universities.

Three out of four college students are nontraditional. 6.3 million attend two-year institutions or community colleges. Around 4 million students attended community colleges part-time. More than 40 percent of college students are age 25 or older. Eighty percent of students work during the academic year. The University of Phoenix, a for-profit non-traditional university established in 1976 is now the United States’ largest university with 280,000 students and 239 campuses throughout the world.

The beauty of the American higher-education system is its flexibility and practicality. From Doctorates to Masters to Bachelors to Associates to Technical degrees there is a broad array of options and paths available in higher education. Just as important however, the system provides the flexibility for obtaining those degrees at any point in life. Think about the number of people that you know in your own life, over the age of twenty five, that are pursuing or have recently pursued additional education.

This is possible because the formal education system in this country has developed into a degree and accredidation system. It is, in many ways, for resume purposes only. That sounds like criticism, but it is really an acknowledgement of one of the systems biggest strengths. A strength that springs from its flexibility. If a career requires a certain degree or skill, there will be some form of schooling available for that, available at different times in a persons life.

So, if the American higher education system is the best in the world, then the elementary and secondary system can’t be entirely broken. The secondary system is a collection of tributaries which feed the main arteries of higher education. What we’re really saying is that some of those tributaries are running dry. Specifically, those tributaries in large urban environments.

What is the Real High School Graduation Rate?

One of the frustrations of researching this topic is the lack of a consensus as to what the true high school graduation rate is. If we don’t even know how many people we’re not educating, how in the world can we be expected to educate them? asserts that the public high school graduation rate was 68.8% in 2005. A study published by the Manhattan Institute which concluded that the national graduation rate for the class of 1998 was 71%. For white students the rate was 78%, while it was 56% for African-American students and 54% for Latino students.

Alarming statistics, to be sure. But then, buried at the bottom of the executive summary is this little nugget. “The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) finds a national high school completion rate of 86% for the class of 1998. The discrepancy between the NCES’ finding and this report’s finding of a 71% rate is largely caused by NCES’ counting of General Educational Development (GED) graduates and others with alternative credentials as high school graduates, and by its reliance on a methodology that is likely to undercount dropouts.”

So, I went to the website for the United States Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and found this: “In 2005, some 86 percent of all 25- to 29-year-olds had received a high school diploma or equivalency certificate, and 57 percent of these young adults had received additional education. Although this percentage represents an increase of 8 percentage points since 1971, the high school completion rate has been at least 85 percent since 1976.”

But this includes GED’s. When GED’s are excluded, the NCES says that, in 2004–05, 74.7 percent of public high school students graduated 4 years after beginning their freshman year.

About 3,103,000 high school students graduated during the 2004–05 school year, including 2,799,000 public school graduates and 304,000 private school graduates. An additional 424,000 people earned a GED in 2005. Forty-five percent (191,000) of them were 19 years-old or younger. An additional 26 percent (110,000) were under 25 years-old.

Using the NCES 2005 graduation rate of 74.7 percent, and adding in GED’s earned by 19 year-olds, you get 83.9% of United States public high school students earning a high school diploma, or equivalency, by the age of 19. This would seem to track, roughly, with the NCES data for 25-29 year-olds mentioned above.

Looking further, in 1999 there were 3,848,000 students that should have been expected to graduate, based on students who entered their freshman year in 1995. Only 2,759,000, or 71.7% did. In the next year, 219,000 of those who did not graduate would get their equivalency, raising the rate to 77.3% by the age 19. Over the next four years, approximately 115,000 20-24 year olds would get their GED a year, raising the high school graduation equivalency rate for the class of 1999 to 89.3%, by the age of 25.

So it seems as if the true high school graduation rate is one of those “eye of the beholder” things. Obama is not entirely exaggerating when he says that the United States has a 70% high school graduation rate. From my perspective however, it would seem that a better measure would be to consider an equivalency degree by the age of 19 as the truest measure of the graduation rate. By that measure we’ve found a 77.3% rate for 1999 and 83.9% for 2005.

We could go further of course. We don’t measure college degrees by the age they were obtained. We simply ask whether they’ve been obtained. We might determine that the 89% equivalency completion rate by the age of 25 as the correct measure. It would be consistent at least with how we measure more advanced degrees.

On the other hand maybe I’m just splitting hairs. The point is not to determine the exact graduation rate. What we should be trying to determine is whether the system is broken and why. What are the underlying issues which cause 10-15% of the population to delay earning the degree.

And if we look at it that way, what I think we might find is that we’re looking at the data wrong. Using national graduation rates focuses our attention on the wrong places. Nationally, we may have 70% or 90% high school graduation rates. But those numbers would be far higher if it weren’t for the broken parts, like Chicago Public Schools.

Using the official Chicago Public Schools Graduation Rates, we understand that its not the entire system that’s broken.

1999 2007
Citywide 47 55.1
Female 55.7 64.5
Male 38.6 46
Asian 77.6 77.4
Black 43.2 50.9
Hispanic 49.8 57.2
N. American 40.4 52.9
White 52 62.2
Race/Ethnicity and Gender
Asian Female 82.5 82.8
Asian Male 73.1 72.4
Black Female 53.2 61.7
Black Male 33.2 40.3
Hispanic Female 56.7 66.1
Hispanic Male 43.5 48.9
N. American Female 43.5 47.6
N. American Male 37.5 56.7
White Female 59.4 68.3
White Male 45 56.4
Related Reading:
  • How Do American Students Compare to the Rest of the World?
  • How Do Today’s High School Students Compare to Their Parents?
  • Has Public Education Improved Since the 1970’s
  • Higher Education and Immigration
  • Comparing United States High School Graduation Rates and Chicago Public Schools Graduation Rates
  • Chicago Public Schools: Some Basic Facts
  • Newsburglar Archives