High School Attendance and Completion in the U.S.: A Brief Historical Overview

(Or, Why a Graduation Rate of 78.2% is Both a Good Thing and a Bad Thing)

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently released a report on graduates and dropouts for the school year 2009-2010. In a statement introducing it, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that —

After three decades of stagnation, the on-time graduation rate for high school students in the 2009-10 school year [78.2 percent] is the highest it’s been since at least 1974.

Putting aside for the moment the question of whether we should be celebrating a figure like 78.2% (because, as we’ll see shortly, the answer is less straightforward than it may appear), note the other claim Secretary Duncan makes—that this is the highest high school graduation rate “since at least 1974.” It may seem odd that he is so vague here—don’t we know for sure when our graduation rate was last this high? Doesn’t the U.S. Department of Education have more solid statistics and firmer dates about things like this? Alas, no.

History of the U.S. Bureau/Office/Department of Education

American education as a formal federal concern—with the coordination, oversight, and tracking that implies—is a relatively recent development. As noted in Wikipedia’s page on the U.S. Department of Education, The U.S. Department of Education is quite young—it was only established in 1979. It was preceded first by a Bureau of Education, then by an Office of Education, within various (also evolving) federal agencies, but it is only within the last 35 years that education has had its own Cabinet-level “Department.”

While the U.S. Department of Education has always played a much smaller role in U.S. education than equivalent agencies in many other countries (for example, South Korea has a national curriculum set by its Ministry of Education), it has always played a major role in tracking educational practices and outcomes. The Department’s relatively short lifespan explains why we have high school graduation rates and lots of other detailed statistics for the past several decades, but why educational statistics from the 1970s and further back are not as comprehensive as those from more recent years.

History of High School Attendance in the U.S.

Black and white photograph of school buildingBut we do know a little about the pre-1970s history of American education, including high school attendance and dropout rates, thanks to various smaller-scale federal tracking efforts dating from 1870. These statistics are compiled in a 1993 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait.”

You only have to go back a few generations of Americans to find people who didn’t finish high school (because they didn’t have to, legally or occupationally) or who didn’t go to high school at all. For much of America’s history, attending high school was a privilege for those who could afford the tuition, not a right, and certainly not a requirement. In fact, using public tax dollars to fund high schools was not permitted by law until 1874, nearly a century after our country’s founding.

Once high schools became a public responsibility, it took another half-century or so for high school attendance to become commonplace, as shown in the figure below. This growth in enrollment (note that this figure does not show completion but only enrollment) was fueled by many factors, including 1) movements to assimilate immigrant youth through schooling and 2) child labor laws, which limited youth participation in the labor force. In addition, by 1910, 35 states had laws on the books requiring school attendance until age 14. High school attendance had rapidly become not just a viable or desired option for many youth, but also a legal requirement.

Figure 7 in NCES report, p. 29

From NCES’s “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait” (p. 29). Secondary school enrollment as a percentage of 14- to 17-year-olds rose from about 10% in 1900 to about 70% in 1940, went down to about 60% in the mid-1940s, then increased to about 90% and remained there from 1970 onward.

But how many of this burgeoning population of high school students graduated? In the figure below, we see a similar curve to that for secondary enrollment in the figure above—a sharp rise in the first half of the twentieth century, then a leveling off. (You can just make out the slight bump in graduation rates around 1974 that Secretary Duncan referred to.)

From NCES's "120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait"

From NCES’s “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait” (p. 31). The number of graduates of public and private high schools as a percentage of 17-year-olds rose from about 3% in 1870 to about 50% in 1940, then dropped to about 40% in the mid-1940s before rising to and leveling off at 70-80% from the mid-1960s onward.

Comparing these two figures, we can see that since the mid-1960s, 90% or more of the school-aged population has been enrolled in secondary school, but the graduation rate has always hovered between 70% and 80%. Note, however, that because the population of youth attending high school has grown greatly over this timespan (as shown in the first figure), ever greater numbers of students are graduating all the time, even if the graduation rate remains relatively steady.


What can we conclude from this information? First, we Americans have less trouble getting high school-age students enrolled in school than we have in getting them graduated. We should take advantage of our compulsory education laws and general societal value of secondary education and work harder to keep students in high school once they enroll, which they do at very high rates.

Also, note how high school enrollment and graduation rates have both leveled off in recent decades. (These figures only go until the early ‘90s, but the same trends have continued since then; see this table and figure 32-2 on this page.) By the numbers, more and more students are graduating all the time, but more than 20% of students persistently fail to graduate. We should celebrate the fact that we have kept our graduation rate steady in the face of increasing secondary enrollment while recognizing that there is always more to be done to narrow the gap between our enrollment and graduation rates.

The good news is that many people have been working for decades to maintain and improve our high school graduation rates. We know more now than ever about what works and what doesn’t. In a future post, we’ll share some sources of promising and proven practices in high school completion. We also plan to devote a future post to the reasons why students drop out of high school, and how they have (or haven’t) changed over time. Stay tuned!

About the Author: Chris Opsal is a project coordinator at the Institute on Community Integration, contributor to the Attend-Engage-Invest blog, and member of the Check & Connect team.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

2 thoughts on “High School Attendance and Completion in the U.S.: A Brief Historical Overview

  1. Pingback: High School Attendance and Completion in the U.S.: A Brief Historical Overview | Charles Bickenheuser, EdD

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