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Promising Practices for Promoting High School Graduation

High school graduates

This summary explains the importance of high school graduation and describes research-based approaches to promoting high school graduation.

For more in-depth information about this topic, see additional resources from PPN shown at the right, or consult the references at the end of the Issue Brief.

Why is graduating high school important?

What are current trends in high school graduation rates?

What are promising strategies for promoting high school graduation?

Why is graduating high school important?

High school graduation is widely valued because it usually leads to higher earnings for individuals and also because communities, and indeed nations, with more-educated citizens have greater productivity and economic growth. [1] There is evidence that graduating high school provides an additional boost to earnings above and beyond the earnings of individuals with the same number of years of schooling but no diploma or individuals with a General Educational Development diploma (GED). [2] While GED recipients resemble high school graduates on measures of cognitive ability, their earnings are substantially lower. [3] This earnings gap between high school graduates and dropouts has been attributed to "non-cognitive" factors, such as motivation and perseverance. [4] Furthermore, having a high school diploma has become increasingly important in the labor market over the past several decades. The earnings "premium" realized by high school graduates has grown since the early 1970s, and in 2010, the median earnings of individuals with a high school diploma but not additional education were 41 percent higher than those of a high school dropout, adding up to a difference of well over half a million dollars in earnings over a lifetime. [5] [6] [7]

While the importance of high school graduation for labor market outcomes is well recognized, the value of high school graduation as a contributor to other measures of personal and social well-being should not be discounted. High school graduates go on to obtain more postsecondary education than GED recipients or high school dropouts. [2] Additionally, educational attainment has been shown to be a key predictor of health [8], mortality [9], teen childbearing [10], marital outcomes [11], crime [12], and a range of other outcomes. [13] There is also growing awareness that promoting high school graduation for the current generation benefits the next generation as well: Raising the level of education attained by parents is a way to improve children's outcomes in areas ranging from health to their own academic achievement. [14] [15] [16]

What are current trends in high school graduation rates?

Given the fundamental role that high school graduation plays in individual and societal well-being, it is incredible that there is not clarity on what the high school graduation rate is in the United States. Indeed, differing methods of calculating U.S. high school graduation rates produced estimates ranging from 66 percent to 88 percent for 2005. [17] Some of the differences in these estimates are due to factors such as whether GED recipients were included in the count of high school graduates, the use of different data sources, uneven availability of longitudinal data, and whether prisoners and recent immigrants were included in the calculations. [17] [18] Until recently, most states did not collect information from school districts in a way that enabled them to determine what happened to each student who started high school: Did the student transfer, drop out, or receive a diploma?

Under the leadership of the National Governors Association, in 2005 all states signed a compact in which they agreed to take the steps necessary to implement a common formula for calculating high school graduation rates. [19] By the end of 2011, 48 states will be reporting rates using the "Compact Formula," which required many states to invest in new data systems and modify the way they collected student information. The changes include developing unique statewide student identifiers and tracking individual students' enrollment and dropout statuses. The formula divides the number of on-time high school graduates in a year by the number of first-time entering ninth graders four years earlier, after adjusting for transfers in and out. The tally of high school graduates includes only those who obtain a high school diploma and not students who receive alternative credentials, such as the GED. It is expected that by the end of 2012, all states will be using the Compact Formula. [19]

Given that the Compact Formula has not been completely implemented, we report trends in high school graduation rates using a method that uses the best currently available data that estimate the number of ninth graders who went on to obtain high school diplomas. This method is called the "averaged freshman graduation rate," or AFGR, method, and it has the disadvantage of not using information on the progress of individual students to be able to track grade repeaters, transfers, and dropouts. The national AFGR for public school students for the most recent year available, 2007-2008, was 74.9 percent. [18] The AFGR has remained relatively flat since the turn of the century, ranging between 73 and 75 percent between the 2001-2002 school year and the 2007-2008 school year. Using a number of different data sets and an approach that resembles that of the Compact Formula, Heckman and LaFontaine [17] show that there has actually been little change in high school graduation rates in the past three decades, after half a century of steady increases.

Regardless of method used to calculate high school graduation rates, the rates all indicate that roughly one-quarter of students who did not graduate in the past decade are on track to experience a much lower standard of living than their peers who graduated from high school. This disadvantage is not evenly distributed across all demographic groups, however, as shown in Figure 1 below. Since the AFGR is not available by race and gender, we present the graduation rate by ages 20-24 for the cohort born in 1976-1980, as calculated by Heckman and LaFontaine [17] using census data. Like the AFGR, this rate includes only individuals who received a high school diploma, and not those who earned an alternative credential. These data show that women are about 8 percent more likely to graduate from high school than men, a trend that has been true for about two decades. The data also indicate that Hispanics have the lowest graduation rates out of all of the racial and ethnic groups, and that including new Hispanic immigrants in the Hispanic calculations substantially depresses the rate. Whites are 50 percent more likely to be high school graduates than Hispanics, when all Hispanics are included. Another profound difference in graduation rates exists across regions of the country: Graduation rates in the Northeast and Midwest are considerably higher than graduation rates in the South and West. [18]

Figure 1.  U.S. Graduation Rate for 1976-1980 Birth Cohort by Age 20-24, by Gender and Race/Ethnicity

Figure 1
Notes: Immigrants refers to recent immigrants who entered the United States within the past 10 years. GED recipients are not included in this graduation rate.

What are promising strategies for promoting high school graduation?

Here we provide a brief overview of the approaches for promoting high school graduation for which there is evidence of effectiveness based on rigorous research*. (See discussion and programs on the Promising Practices Network site and the What Works Clearinghouse for more in depth information). Promising strategies for promoting high school graduation can be classified by the organizational level at which they are implemented or focused: the individual level, the school level, or the system or district level. [20] [21]

Interventions that attempt to promote school retention of individual students at risk of dropping out typically focus on improving academic performance, "non-academic" skills, or both. Approaches that promote academic performance include intensive instruction in particular subjects, such as math or reading, or personalized instruction, which may include extra instructional time or help students address specific academic performance challenges, such as poor test-taking or study skills. [20] [21] Those approaches that aim to develop non-academic skills include strategies designed to improve specific behaviors, such as problem-solving skills, social interaction, and decisionmaking. [20] [21] Many approaches to improving behaviors focus on promoting close relationships with caring adults. These include mentoring programs, pairing students with counselors who regularly meet with them, and placing at-risk students in smaller classrooms where the learning environment is more personalized and teachers get to know students' strengths and needs better. [20] [21] Promoting relationships with caring adults at school is also part of a larger group of strategies that are sometimes referred to as increasing student "engagement" in school, and may also include approaches that make school more relevant to future work and career options. [21]

Another major class of practices that have been shown to promote high school graduation is interventions that provide high-quality intensive early education programs for young children, to promote school readiness and, subsequently, outcomes across the student's educational career. [20] It appears that early education may promote later educational outcomes by improving both students' academic and non-academic skills. [23] [24]

In some districts, rather than targeting individual students who are at risk of dropping out of school, successful attempts to promote high school graduation have been implemented schoolwide. [20] [21] [22] These interventions generally include strategies similar to the individual approaches—smaller classes, more personalized instruction, establishing close relationships with adults, improving non-academic behaviors, and academic enrichment—but at the whole school or classroom level. [20] [21] [22]

A prerequisite for developing strategies that promote high school graduation at the individual level or the school level is obtaining appropriate information. That is, decisionmakers need to be able to accurately monitor rates and trends in overall school dropout and completion numbers and to identify individual students who may be at risk of dropping out. [21] This requires schools—and, ideally, states—to create data systems that assign individual student identifiers so that students' absences, grade progression, and academic performance can be effectively monitored. Through their participation in the National Governors Association compact described above, and with the assistance of federal Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems grants, which help states develop and support longitudinal data systems [25], most states are moving in this direction. [19]

* Please see Promising Practices Network evidence criteria at http://www.promisingpractices.net/criteria.asp. We include in this review practices and programs that would meet the "Promising" evidence level at a minimum.


1.   Delong, J. B., Lawrence Katz, and Claudia Goldin, "Sustaining U.S. Economic Growth," in H. Aaron, J. Lindsay, and P. Nivola, eds., Agenda for the Nation, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003.

2.   Cameron, Stephen V., and James J. Heckman, "The Nonequivalence of High School Equivalents," Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 11, No. 1, Part 1, 1993, pp. 1-47.

3.   Heckman, James J., and Paul A. LaFontaine. "Bias Corrected Estimates of GED Returns," Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2006, pp. 661-700.

4.   Heckman, James J., Jora Stixrud, and Sergio Urzua, "The Effects of Cognitive and Noncognitive Abilities on Labor Market Outcomes and Social Behavior," Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2006, pp. 411-482.

5.   Mishel, Lawrence, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America, 2008/2009, Economic Policy Institute, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009.

6.   Bureau of Labor Statistics, Data Retrieval: Labor Force Statistics (CPS), Household Data, "Table 5: Quartiles and Selected Deciles of Usual Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Selected Characteristics, Quarterly Averages, Not Seasonally Adjusted," 2011. [As of February 18, 2011, available at: http://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cpswktab5.htm]

7.   Rouse, Cecilia E., "Quantifying the Costs of Inadequate Education: Consequences of the Labor Market," in C.R. Belfield and H.M. Levin, eds., The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2007, pp. 99-124.

8.   Berger, M., and J. P. Leigh, "Schooling, Self-Selection, and Health," Journal of Human Resources, Vol. 24, 1989, pp. 4334-55.

9.   Lleras-Muney, Adriana, "The Relationship Between Education and Adult Mortality in the United States," Review of Economic Studies, Vol. 72, 2005, pp. 189-221.

10.   Black, S., P. Devereux, and K. Salvanes, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High? The Effect of Compulsory Schooling Laws on Teenage Births," Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper No. 10911, 2004.

11.   Stevenson, B., and J. Wolfers, "Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Their Driving Forces," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 21, 2007, pp. 27-52.

12.   Lochner, L., and E. Moretti, "The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports," American Economic Review, Vol. 94, 2004, pp. 155-189.

13.   Acemoglu, D., and J. Angrist, "How Large Are Human-Capital Externalities? Evidence from Compulsory Schooling Laws," in NBER Macro Annual 2000, Vol. 15, edited by B.S. Bernanke and K. Rogoff, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 9-74.

14.   Oreopoulos, P., M. Page, and A. Stevens, "The Intergenerational Effects of Compulsory Schooling," Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 24, 2006, pp. 729-760.

15.   Overpeck, M. D., R. A. Brenner, A. C. Trumble, L. B. Trifiletti, and H. W. Berendes, "Risk Factors for Infant Homicide in the United States," New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 339, 1998, pp. 1211-1216.

16.   Currie, J., and E. Moretti, "Mother's Education and the Intergenerational Transmission of Human Capital: Evidence from College Openings," Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 118, No. 4, 2003, pp. 1495-1532.

17.   Heckman, James J., and Paul A. LaFontaine, "The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels," Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 92, No. 2, 2010, pp. 244-262

18.   Chapman, C., Laird, J., and A. Kewal Ramani, Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972-2008, Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, NCES 2011-012, 2010.

19.   National Governors Association, Implementing Graduation Counts: State Progress to Date 2010, Washington, D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2010. [As of February 15, 2011, available at: http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/1012gradcountsprogress.pdf]

20.   Promising Practices Network, "Programs That Work, Indicator: Students Graduating from High School," Santa Monica: Calif. RAND Corporation, 2011. [As of February 18, 2011, available at: http://www.promisingpractices.net/programs_indicator_list.asp?indicatorid=7]

21.   U.S. Department of Education, Dropout Prevention, Washington, D.C.: What Works Clearinghouse, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, NCEE 2008-4025, 2008. [As of February 15, 2011, available at: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/dp_pg_090308.pdf]

22.   Dynarski, M., and P. Gleason, How Can We Help? What We Have Learned from Evaluations of Federal Dropout-Prevention Programs, Princeton, N.J.: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., 1998.

23.   Karoly, Lynn A., M. Rebecca Kilburn, and Jill S. Cannon, Early Childhood Interventions: Proven Results, Future Promise, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, MG-341-PNC, 2005. [As of February 18, 2011, available at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG341.html]

24.   Cunha, Flavio, and James J. Heckman, "The Technology of Skill Formation," American Economic Review, Vol. 97, No. 2, 2007, pp. 31-47.

25.   U.S. Department of Education, "Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program," Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011. [As of February 18, 2011, available at: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/slds/]

About this Issue Brief

This document was produced by the Promising Practices Network (PPN) on Children, Families and Communities with support by a grant from The Community Foundation of North Louisiana and is published online as part of PPN's Issue Brief series. This Issue Brief is available at the following URL:  http://www.promisingpractices.net/briefs/briefs_highschoolgrad.asp

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