U.S. dropout rate has fallen by nearly two-thirds. Here’s why.

Why We Wrote This

Gradual progress is often difficult to see in the moment, but it adds up over time. Decades of efforts to chip away at the U.S. high school dropout rate are showing big long-term gains.

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Students walk to City Honors School from a subway stop in Buffalo, New York, last fall. City Honors is a magnet school for acceleration and the International Baccalaureate program.

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U.S. high school dropout rates have fallen by nearly two-thirds over the course of 18 years. In 2000, approximately 1.6 million teenagers ages 16 through 19 were out of school – 11% of that age group. Today, that number has dropped to 669,000 teens, or 4%.

“What is especially encouraging,” says John Farden, associate vice president for U.S. programs at Save the Children, “is that we have also seen some changes in the disparities.”

In the 18-year span of the study – which reflects the duration of a childhood – the report found a 75% reduction in the dropout rate among Hispanic youth, and a 69% reduction among black youth.

He points to public investments in education, as well as various movements to encourage teens to stay in school, as playing a role in driving the sustained reductions. 

“We are definitely seeing improvement,” says Shanan Chappell Moots, a research fellow with the National Dropout Prevention Center. Still, she sees a continued need, particularly in communities where high school graduation rates can be as low as 60%. Graduation rates have grown just over the past 10 years, she says, “but we want to do better.”

Rico Gonzalez dropped out of high school the summer before he turned 16, and he didn’t have the motivation to return and earn his diploma. 

That changed when a friend brought him along to a college English class. The visit sparked a desire in Mr. Gonzalez to hit the books again. 

“I was kind of blown away that there was a place where people wanted to be,” says Mr. Gonzalez. “It wasn’t until I actually had a desire to do something, to be part of something, that I said ‘OK, it’s time.’”

He finished high school, moved through college, and even returned after earning his bachelor’s degree to take additional courses. And today, he’s an English teacher at Southport High School in Indianapolis where he shares his story to help his students find their own motivation to learn.

Mr. Gonzalez’s story is perhaps less common today than it was a generation ago, according to a new report from the international humanitarian organization Save the Children.

The report reveals that U.S. high school dropout rates have fallen by nearly two-thirds over the course of 18 years. In 2000, approximately 1.6 million teenagers ages 16 through 19 were out of school – 11% of that age group. Today, that number has dropped to 669,000 teens, or 4%.

SOURCE: Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, Save the Children
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“More and more jobs in our economy require degrees – high school degrees and even higher education degrees, and we know that is key,” says John Farden, associate vice president for U.S. programs at Save the Children. “What is especially encouraging is that we have also seen some changes in the disparities.”

In the 18-year span of the study – which reflects the duration of a childhood – the report found a 75% reduction in the dropout rate among Hispanic youth, and a 69% reduction among black youth.

“If you think about education as an equity issue, we had some progress in changing that gap over the last generation,” says Mr. Farden. 

He points to public investments in education, as well as various movements to encourage teens to stay in school, as playing a role in driving the sustained reductions. Additionally, he says, “a high school diploma is a prerequisite” for a lot of jobs and career paths.

“We are definitely seeing improvement,” says Shanan Chappell Moots, who serves as director for research analytics and as a research associate professor in The Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “Not a whole lot of people talk about dropout rates anymore. They are definitely on the decline.”

Dr. Moots is also a research fellow with the National Dropout Prevention Center and has conducted extensive research on the topic. She attributes the decline in the U.S. dropout rate to a multitude of factors, especially the greater availability of training for career, technical, and vocational skills.

Many practitioners, she says, are also encouraging holistic support services that could address behavioral, mental health, and personal challenges that often present obstacles to academic success and can otherwise lead to a student dropping out.

Still, Dr. Moots sees a continued need, particularly in communities where high school graduation rates can be as low as 60%. Graduation rates have grown just over the past 10 years, she says, “but we want to do better.”

Beyond reducing teen dropout rates, Mr. Farden believes there can be improvement on both ends of the educational spectrum: for younger children to enter school at an earlier age, and for high school graduates to pursue further education.

“While we have greatly increased high school education, access to early childhood education has largely remained stagnant over the last generation,” says Mr. Farden. “There is more and more of a sense nationally that we have to look at this continuum of services – the cradle to career continuum.”

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