High school graduation rate tops 78 percent – highest since 1976

Some 78.2 percent finished in four years, graduating in spring 2010, a new report found Tuesday. Grim economic conditions and the need to be competitive in a crowded job market played a role.

Brian Snyder/Reuters/File
A view shows the silhouette of a student with a graduation cap in this file photo. High school graduation rate at the highest since 1976, motivated in part by grim economic conditions and the need to be competitive in a crowded job market.

Public high school students are graduating at the highest rate since 1976, motivated in part by grim economic conditions and the need to be competitive in a crowded job market.

More than 3.1 million high school students received their diplomas in spring 2010, with 78.2 percent finishing in four years, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported Tuesday. The rate is a 2.7-percentage-point increase over the previous year, and those two rates are the highest since the 75 percent rate in 1975 and 1976.

The report does not analyze for causes, but education officials say the increasing rate can certainly be linked to the struggling economy.

"If you drop out of high school, how many good jobs are there out there for you? None," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in an Associated Press interview published Tuesday.

This was not the case 10 or 15 years ago, he said.

"When I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, it wasn't great, but I had lots of friends who dropped out, and they could go work in the stockyards or steel mills, and they could buy a home, support a family, do OK," Secretary Duncan said.

With an average annual salary of $20,241, high school dropouts earn $10,386 less than high school graduates, who earn $30,627, according to Census Bureau data.

The need for young people to be competitive in the job market is increasingly important, especially as part-time jobs and internships available to students are decreasing, says Donna Harris-Aikens, director of education policy and practices at the National Education Association.

“Part of the impact of the economy on students is that internship slots are being taken by adults who need to switch gears or gain experience in different fields, so they can get back into the mainstream of employment,” Ms. Harris-Aikens says.

It is important for students to see how their education is relevant to their employment experience and how earning a diploma will benefit them in both the short and long term, she says.

The increasing graduation rate is “extremely promising,” Harris-Aikens says, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. “We want to be at 100 percent.”

The achievement gaps along racial lines are a noticeable area for improvement, she says.

Asian/Pacific Islander students graduate at the highest rate (93.5 percent), followed by white students (83 percent), Hispanic students (71.4 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native students (69.1 percent), and black students (66.1 percent), according to the NCES report.

“If we can work to close those gaps, the graduation rate overall will see dramatic increases,” Harris-Aikens says.

The graduation rate also varies widely across states: Lowest-ranked Nevada reported 57.8 percent graduation rate, and top-ranked Vermont reported 91.4 percent.

One next step is to do a more in-depth analysis to see which strategies are working and which strategies need to be readjusted.

The most important strategy, Harris-Aikens says, is “paying attention to details and talking to kids, helping them figure out what they need.”

NCES bases the graduation rate on the averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR), an estimate of public high school students who graduate within four years of starting ninth grade. The US Department of Education continues to refine the way it reports graduation rates, including establishing a national formula for state reports, but the AFGR is currently the best measure, the NCES report says.

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