Myth: The high school dropout rate is climbing.

Fact: The high school dropout rate is falling.


Statistics by the U.S. Census show that the high school graduation rate has been increasing for many decades now, and for all sub-groups of the population. This has occurred at a time when public educators are spending more money on programs designed to keep students in school. Their success is a vindication of that policy.


The claim that more and more American students are dropping out of high school is false. According to the U.S. Census, more young people are graduating from high school than ever before -- a trend has continued for decades, and among all sub-groups of the population.

In 1970, 75 percent of young people aged 25 to 29 had graduated from high school. By 1990, that had risen to 86 percent. (1)

The following chart shows the rise in high school graduation rates for all sub-groups (except Asians, whose figures are unavailable):

Percent of population over age 25 who have completed 4 years of
high school or college (2)

High School:
Year   Total  White  Black  Hispanic
1960   41.1%  43.2   20.1   NA
1970   52.3   54.5   31.4   32.1
1980   66.5   68.8   51.2   44.0
1990   77.6   79.1   66.2   50.8
1994   80.9   82.0   72.9   53.3

Year   Total  White  Black  Hispanic
1960    7.7%   8.1    3.1    NA
1970   10.7   11.3    4.4    4.5
1980   16.2   17.1    8.4    7.6
1990   21.3   22.0   11.3    9.2
1994   22.2   22.9   12.9    9.1

As for the high-school dropout rate itself, the trends are equally encouraging:

High school dropout rate, age 14-24 (3)

Year   Total  White  Black  Hispanic
1970   12.2%  10.8   22.2   NA
1980   12.0   11.3   16.0   29.5
1990   10.1   10.1   10.9   26.8
1993    9.2    8.8   11.2   22.9

Why the lower dropout rates?

The above numbers refute conservative rhetoric that spending more on public education has only resulted in worse outcomes. In fact, about 3 percent of the increased spending on public education since 1965 has been devoted to keeping students in school. (4) Public educators have also spent more on school lunches and transportation, which provide further means and incentives for poor students to attend classes. Their success in reducing the dropout rate would indicate that this policy is effective, and conservatives have no case for arguing otherwise.

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1. U.S. Bureau of the Census.

2. U.S. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Census of the Population, U.S. Summary, PC80-1-C1 and Current Population Reports P20-455, P20-462, P20-465RV, P20-475 and unpublished data.

3. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P20-479 and earlier reports. A dropout is defined as a person not in regular school who has not completed the 12th grade nor received a general equivalency degree.

4. Richard Rothstein, "The Myth of Public School Failure," The American Prospect no. 13, Spring, 1993.