Why We Shouldn’t Be Celebrating Peak in High School Graduation Rates

Mary Clare Reim /

GraduationFailing to graduate from high school can be disastrous for an individual’s economic future, so it is welcome news that the average freshman graduation rate reached a 40-year high of 78.2 percent for the 2009–2010 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. However, there are a number of reasons that this may not necessarily translate to greater economic mobility for these graduates.

Here is what the improvement in the average graduation rate does not tell us:

  1. Whether or not students are graduating with a quality education. Receiving a piece of paper saying that you completed high school does not mean you have graduated with the skills needed to succeed in the real world. Many colleges claim that students are coming out of high school unprepared. One-third of students entering college immediately take a remedial English or math course. Fifty-three percent will take a remedial course over the course of their college careers. Likewise, employers also find themselves increasingly frustrated with the quality of workers coming out of high school. According to the American Diploma Project, “Most employers say high school graduates lack basic skills. More than 60 percent of employers rate graduates’ skills in grammar, spelling, writing and basic math as only ‘fair’ or ‘poor.’”
  2. Whether these students received a traditional high school diploma or a GED. When states report their high school completion rates, this number includes two types of students: those who stayed in high school for four years and earned a high school diploma, and those who earned their GED. While the GED may be a good alternative for some students, research shows that the GED option may encourage students to drop out who would otherwise have completed high school and received a traditional diploma. The same study also reveals that those who take the GED are significantly less likely to continue on to college than diploma recipients, and they typically have the same earnings as high school dropouts. Completion data can therefore be misleading when GED recipients are included. While completion rates have increased over the past several years, so have the number of students taking the GED. The researchers found that removing GED credentials lowers graduation rates by 7.4 percent.
  3. Whether minority students are able to overcome the “achievement gap.” The racial achievement gaps plaguing our public school system are extremely troubling. While overall graduation rates have been improving over the past 40 years, Hispanic students still drop out at almost 4 times the rate of white students, and African American students drop out at about twice the rate of white students. While the gap has narrowed, low-income and minority students too often find themselves trapped in failing public schools without the tools necessary to help move them out of poverty. School choice empowers parents to match educational options with their children’s unique learning needs—regardless of what neighborhood they grow up in—and may be the best way to tackle the achievement gap.

Despite the astronomical rate of education spending in this country, high school graduation rates still remain low. With rising concern over economic mobility and income inequality, high school completion should be a top priority for policymakers who wish to open the doors of opportunity to low-income and minority children. Understanding the environment within our schools and who is dropping out and why are key to achieving this goal.