NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

An Uptick in High School Graduations

September 9, 2013

During most of the last century, steady increases in the proportion of the labor force that had graduated from high school fueled the nation's economic growth and rising incomes, say Richard Murnane, professor of education and economics, and Stephen Hoffman, a doctoral student, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

  • The high school graduation rate for teenagers in the United States rose from 6 percent to 80 percent from 1900 to 1970.
  • By the late 1960s, the United States ranked first among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on this measure of educational attainment.
  • Between 1970 and 2000, however, the U.S. high school graduation stagnated while in many other OECD countries it rose markedly.
  • By 2000, the high school graduation rate in the United States ranked 13th among the 19 OECD countries.

Until quite recently, it appeared that this long stagnation had continued into the 21st century. Yet evidence from two independent sources now shows that the graduation rate increased substantially between 2000 and 2010. The improvements were especially pronounced among blacks and Hispanics, who have long been far less likely to complete high school than their white peers.

If increases in high school graduation requirements during the last quarter of the 20th century supposedly contributed to the stagnation in graduation rates, why did rates rise during the first decade of the 21st century?

Understanding the role of school improvement efforts and nonschool factors will be important to designing policies that contribute to continued increases in educational attainment, especially if new requirements tied to the Common Core standards raise graduation requirements further.

Source: Richard J. Murnane and Stephen Hoffman, "Graduations on the Rise," Education Next, Fall 2013.


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