Graduation rates may appear smaller than they are

Today the U.S. Department of Education released its high school graduate rate estimate, called the Average FreshmanGraduation Rate (AFGR). According to the AFGR, 73 percent of freshman graduated four years later. Consequently, you may see headlines saying that 27 percent of high school students dropped out. This is not necessarily the case.

As we state in our report Calculating high school graduation rates, the inverse of a graduation rate is not the dropout rate. The graduation rate of 73 percent is an on-time graduation rate. Students who took longer than four years to graduate are not counted as graduates. As the Center’s Better late than never report points out, this excludes nearly 5 percent of students who take longer than four years to graduate high school.

That may not sound like a huge number, but it would decrease the so-called “dropout rate” by nearly 20 percent, from 27 percent to 22 percent. The decrease would be even greater for the dropout rate of poor and minority students, who are much more likely to graduate late than their more affluent and white peers.

What the Better late than never report found is that late graduates are much more successful after high school than their classmates who failed to earn a high school diploma, even those who went on to earn a GED. This benefit held true across several post-high-school outcomes, such as the likelihood of being employed, of having a quality job, of being a good citizen and of living a healthy lifestyle. Moreover, when compared to peers from similar backgrounds, late graduates were just as well off as those who graduated on time.

Of course, including late graduates in graduation rate calculations doesn’t negate the fact that too many of our students–especially poor and minority students–are not graduating high school at all. But schools are working hard to graduate more of their students and the Center documents what research shows is working in dropout prevention in our Keeping kids in school report. By implementing successful dropout prevention programs, graduation rates will not look small, no matter how they are calculated. –Jim Hull

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