A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

[Consumer Guide]

National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students

Number 16
March 1996

High School Dropout Rates

The news media and others often quote high school dropout rates as an indication of the success or failure of American schools. However, the rates quoted may differ significantly from time to time or from one publication to another. Why is this? What is the true dropout rate?

The answer is not as clear as one might want: there are different definitions of what it means to graduate from high school and there are wide differences in who is counted as a dropout. In addition, there are a number of ways the student dropout rate can be calculated.

What Does It Mean to Graduate?

There is more than one path to high school completion. Most students receive a regular high school diploma after completing the required secondary school course work. Some students, however, complete high school by means of an equivalency test and receive an alternative credential such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Still others receive a certificate of completion issued by the state in recognition of achieving requirements other than those of the regular curriculum, such as attending school regularly for 12 years or passing a test specified by the state. The requirements for such certificates vary from state to state.

Strictly speaking, a high school graduation rate is based solely on students receiving "regular" high school diplomas. High school completion rates, however, usually count both those students who receive regular diplomas and those who complete high school by means of an equivalency test, such as the GED. (McMillen et.al, 1994.)

Who Is Counted as a Dropout?

Gaustad (1991) reports that the definition of a dropout varies widely, with different states, districts, and even schools within districts using the term differently. For example, some districts may not include students who drop out over the summer, or who leave school to get married, while others do include them in the dropout total. In addition, some districts may keep more complete records than others. For example, some districts follow up on students who do not return after the summer to determine whether or not they are enrolled in other schools, while other districts do not. Other variations may include whether or not certain types of non-traditional students (i.e., those who leave regular high school before graduation to enter correctional institutions, enroll in GED programs, or enter college) are counted as dropouts until they have completed an equivalency program (McMillen et. al., 1994).

How Is the Dropout Rate Calculated?

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports three types of dropout rates:

Status rates are higher than event rates, since they reflect the number of students in a given age range who have dropped out of school over a number of years, rather than a "snapshot" of one year. For example, the national event dropout rate [1] in grades 10 through 12 for 1993 was 4.5 percent, while the 1993 national status dropout rate [2] for 16- to 24-year-olds was 11.0 percent.

What Are the Trends?

NCES publishes an annual report that allows readers to compare dropout rates over time (McMillen et.al., 1994). Nationwide, dropout rates have declined during the last decade:

Even though the rates are declining, they still represent a large number of people. In 1993, approximately 381,000 students in grades 10 through 12 dropped out of school, and approximately 3.4 million persons in the United States ages 16 through 24 were high school dropouts.

Dropout rates are about the same for males and females, but the rates are not the same for students from different ethnic groups or different income levels. In general, rates are higher for minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The 1993 status dropout rate was:

Rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives are quite high, while those for Asian-American students are quite low. The dropout rate is greater in cities than in other localities, and is highest in the West and South (OERI 1993).


[1] This event rate is for students ages 15 through 24 in grades 10 through 12 who dropped out during 1993.

[2] This status rate is for 16- to 24-year-olds who had not completed high school and were not currently enrolled in school in October 1993.

[3] The 1980 cohort rate is based on data from the High School and Beyond (HS&B) survey and represents students in the sophomore cohort of 1980 who left school without completing high school or its equivalent by the spring of 1982. The 1990 cohort rate is based on data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS: 88) and represents students from the 1990 sophomore cohort who left school without completing high school or its equivalent by the spring of 1992.


Gaustad, Joan. Identifying Potential Dropouts. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, 1991.

McMillen, Marilyn M.; Kaufman, Phillip; Whitener, Summer D. Drop-out Rates in the United States: 1993. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1994.

Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Reaching the Goals, Goal 2, High School Completion. U.S. Department of Education, 1993.

NOTE: Much of the material in this Consumer Guide (including all of the dropout rates cited) was excerpted from the NCES report Dropout Rates in the United States: 1993.

This Consumer Guide, which was prepared by Debra Hollinger, is part of a series published by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement. To be added to the Consumer Guides mailing list, send your name and address to Consumer Guides, OERI, U.S. Department of Education, 555 New Jersey Ave. NW, Room 610, Washington, DC 20208. Consumer Guides are also available on the Internet at gopher.ed.gov and http://www.ed.gov/. This document is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced in part or in its entirety without permission. Please credit OERI.

AR 96-7032

This Consumer Guide is produced by the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), U.S. Department of Education

Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education
Sharon P. Robinson, Assistant Secretary, OERI
Judith I. Anderson, Acting Director, At-Risk Institute


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