High School Dropout Statistics

Teenagers looking at mobile phone in school corridor
Teenagers looking at mobile phone in school corridor. Phil Boorman/Cultura/Getty Images

Tracking high school dropout and graduation statistics is a grim, confusing business - and percentages can vary so dramatically, parents don't know what to believe. A third of the United States' teenagers drop out of high school? Or 10% or 40%? Well, yes, all of those figures are right - and wrong.

WHY THE DISCREPANCY? When U.S. schools, state governments, and federal agencies report their figures, there are oranges mixed in with the apples.

Some are counting GEDs. Others are omitting teens who attend school in prison. Kids who change schools frequently - especially foster kids, who may change schools multiple times in a single year - fall through the cracks. Many schools base their graduation figures on the percentage of teens who start senior year and go on to graduate, which ignores kids who dropped out earlier. But tracking incoming freshmen who graduate four years later doesn't work either because ninth grade is a prime year for students to be held back for remedial work. So ETS - the folks who gave us the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, et al - embarked on a multi-year study of the data and concluded, as you might have guessed, that we need a better way to track all this. Meanwhile, they've compiled a set of drop-out averages based on figures from various agencies, primarily the National Center for Education Statistics.

So read on for...

THE REAL NUMBERS: According to those estimates, approximately 74-75% of U.S. high school students graduated in 2004, leaving a quarter of the nation's teens diploma-less. Bad as that sounds, it's an improvement. Graduation rates peaked at 77% in 1969, before taking a steep downward slide to 69-71% in 1996.

But that's not the whole story. When you drill down into the demographic breakdowns, the results are very troubling indeed: 60.3% of black, non-Hispanic teens graduated in 2004, compared with 90.5% of the kids of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage. Some 80.4% of white teens graduated that year, but only 64.2% of Hispanics.

WHERE YOU LIVE MATTERS: Certainly there's a variance between inner-city and prosperous prep school data, but the numbers vary widely by state too. According to the ETS study, in 2004, Nevada had the worst overall graduation rate with 57.4%, and South Carolina (60.6%) and Georgia (61.7%) were not far behind. At the top of the heap? Nebraska with 87.6%, New Jersey with 86.3% and North Dakota with 86.1%.

WHAT NOW? Accurate graduation data is important for policymakers and educators, of course, but it's critical information for families too. Keeping your child engaged in his education is a multi-pronged effort not just by your family, but by the school and the school environment. So you need to know how your neighborhood school is doing and what it's doing about it. If your teen is still in high school, but contemplating dropping out, take a look at "How to Encourage Your Teen to Finish High School." If your child has already dropped out, don't despair.

There are second chance education opportunities for them, and nearly three-quarters will use those opportunities to finally earn their high school diploma or their GED.