Growing the Graduation Rate

Matthew Ladner

High school graduation remains a crucial rite of passage. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that, in 2013, the median earning for workers with a high school diploma was 26 percent higher than for those without it.[1] The Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently finds higher rates of employment for high school graduates than for high school dropouts. For example, in 2014, the Bureau reported that the unemployment rate among high school graduates averaged 6 percent.[2] By contrast, the unemployment rate among those who had not completed high school was 9 percent.

Differences in high school graduation rates reflect achievement gaps among major student subgroups’ outcomes on academic assessments. A 2011 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that children from low-income families were more than five times as likely to drop out of school as those from high-income families[3] Black and Hispanic students drop out of school at rates more than double the rate of white students.

American high school graduation rates stood at 78.7 percent in 1970 but began a steady, gradual decline before reaching a low of 71 percent in 1996. Since that point, however, graduation rates have improved — surpassing the 1970 rate in 2011 and nudging forward a bit more to 80.8 percent in 2012.

Scholars have established a very strong record among parental choice programs in boosting graduation rates. A Mathematica study of the impact of charter school attendance in Chicago and Florida found 7 percentage points and 15 percentage points higher graduation rates, respectively, associated with attending a charter school in those areas.[4]

The United States Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences conducted a high-quality random assignment study of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP).[5] OSP is a voucher program for low-income DC students. The graduation rate for OSP students who used vouchers was 21 percentage points higher than of that of the control group. OSP students were statistically among those least likely to graduate (i.e., they were low-income students attending a large urban public school district), so this increase in graduation rate reflects a strong return on investment for the program.

Looking forward into America’s future, increasing the high school graduation rate and the overall quality of instruction looms as a crucial need.[6] The leading edge of the baby-boom generation began qualifying for federal entitlement programs in 2008. Analysts estimate an average 10,000 baby boomers per day will reach retirement age between now and 2030. This will represent an unprecedented graying of the American public, and the Census Bureau also projects an increase in the youth population to accompany it. Many of the middle-aged taxpayers of the year 2030 and beyond sit in American classrooms today. The more who graduate and reach their full potential, the better.

America badly needed the recent small improvement in graduation rates. She needs much more still. The expression “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” has always been true. The cost of this waste, however, looks set to soar higher in the future. With trillions in unfunded liabilities in our entitlement programs, policymakers must focus on policies — like charter schools, school vouchers, and account-based choice mechanisms — that deliver a greater bang for the education buck and meet the needs of individual students.

Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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Student Loan Debt

Additional Resources


  1. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, “Income of Young Adults,”

2. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment,” (accessed May 12, 2015).

3. Chris Chapman et al., “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates, 1972–2009,” October 2011, (accessed May 12, 2015).

4. Kevin Booker, Tim R. Sass, Brian Gill, and Ron Zimmer, “The Unknown World of Charter High Schools,” Education Next, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring 2010), (accessed June 15, 2015).

5. Institute of Education Sciences, “Evaluation of the Impact of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final Report,” June 2010, (accessed May 12, 2015).

6. Dr. Matthew Ladner, “Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education,” (accessed May 12, 2015).

© 2015 by The Heritage Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity

The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America

Heritage Foundation

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A think tank devoted to the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity

The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America

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