Is the U.S. High School Graduation Rate Worse Than We Thought?

That’s the assertion made by James Heckman and Paul LaFontaine in a new working paper called “The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels.”

Here is their abstract:

This paper uses multiple data sources and a unified methodology to estimate the trends and levels of the U.S. high school graduation rate. Correcting for important biases that plague previous calculations, we establish that (a) the true high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the official rate issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics; (b) it has been declining over the past 40 years; (c) majority/minority graduation rate differentials are substantial and have not converged over the past 35 years; (d) the decline in high school graduation rates occurs among native populations and is not solely a consequence of increasing proportions of immigrants and minorities in American society; (e) the decline in high school graduation explains part of the recent slowdown in college attendance; and (f) the pattern of the decline of high school graduation rates by gender helps to explain the recent increase in male-female college attendance gaps.

The National Center for Educational Statistics typically states that the U.S. graduation rate is 88 percent, and that the black/white gap has virtually disappeared. But Heckman and LaFontaine argue that the actual graduation rate is in fact considerably lower, and that the black/white gap hasn’t gone anywhere: “In fact,” they write, “we find no evidence of convergence in minority-majority graduation rates over the past 35 years.”

The only people I can think of for whom this paper represents good news are:

1. People who work in the G.E.D. business.
2. Whites who are eager for minorities to remain educationally diminished.
3. Immigrants who can find good work because of a lack of educated natives.
4. Anyone in the education field who wants to improve things using good, hard data rather than suppositions, opinions, and prayers.

Layla S

You obviously have never been a teacher. Let alone a teacher in the public school system in this country. Why don't you try it? Then post your thoughts on what we deserve to be paid and on how hard we work.

Also, there are more than enough teachers who are forced to pass students who do not attend classes or do not study for their tests or turn in their homework (I'm sure this was mentioned in at least one previous post). So there you have it: pay teachers based on how many kids they pass? Surely you jest.


I think the type of kid that drops out of high school is the type of kid that gets into trouble.

I think most kids who drop out have ineffectual parents.

It's like saying, most people with runny noses have a cold. We are going to stop runny noses and thereby stop people from having colds.

No, they'll still have colds. You are treating but a symptom.

If, somehow, you could force people to stay in high school, I don't think it would result in them being somehow law obedient.


"2. Whites who are eager for minorities to remain educationally diminished."

Well, no. It's to everyone's advantage that minorities (wink, wink) be educated and up to speed.

Those awful whites of whom you speak would be encouraged at this news because it means the problem might finally be getting recognized rather than minimized with a bodyguard of lies.

Mike B.

"Anyone in the education field who wants to improve things using good, hard data rather than suppositions, opinions, and prayers."

Thank you, I haven't had a good laugh all day.


I could have told you that. Additionally, I should like to see a study on the number of student who SHOULDN'T be graduating, but are to keep the affirmative action/state education boards satisfied. I recently graduated and we went from being one of the largest classes to smaller than the previous year. Moreover, about a third of my graduating class shouldn't have--some teachers were forced to pass students or gave the most ridiculous finals (bring your favorite song to class was one of them-no joke).


I fail to see how or why someone who obtains a GED should not count as a high school graduate. They can attend college and get jobs requiring high school graduation, so what's the difference?


"I fail to see how or why someone who obtains a GED should not count as a high school graduate."

Because they did not GRADUATE from a HIGH SCHOOL? That is just my first guess. I expect that the individuals who did the study used THAT as their first means of judging high school graduates, and not whether an individual can go to college or earn a job requiring high school graduation.


I assume that students who choose home schooling or self-education are labeled as "drop-outs," when they could very well be the best educated.


All High Schools discontinued their Trades program for Children who want to start working after they are sixteen, therefore those drop out and join our work force, enter a trade school. I had a grandson who graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, then entered the Electrical field now he is a Licensed Journeyman Electrician who plans to become an Electrical Contractor.
Our Government recognizes three years hands on experience as a Bachelors Degree. Everyone does not want an full academic education. By observing our Congress and Senate, you may recognize the educated idiots and failures.
Warm Regards,

Mike B.

At some point, will bloggists, educators, and scholars stop dancing around the fact that this "minority" problem is overwhelmingly a black and hispanic problem?

There's so much doublespeak, political correctedness, and agenda-pushing in U.S. education it's amazing that anyone learns anything at all.


I heartily agree with option #4. Check out the chapter in Thomas Sowell's book Black Rednecks and White Liberals on education. Poliical correctness has taken priority over good data supporting best practices in education.


What's the difference if someone drops out of high school or is socially promoted through it? Is high school teaching anything relevant these days anyway?


A high school friend of mine dropped out of high school before his senior year so he could take his GED and go straight to college. He got a job as an engineer straight out of college. In that instance, I don't see the difference between a GED and a high school diploma. Although my friend is most certainly an exception to the typical GED graduate, the difference between a GED and a high school diploma is negligible in the workplace.

I think #4 in the above list can be replaced with "Politicians and educators that will use this as an excuse to ask for yet more money for the education system. You know--for the children. And my children need a BMW, baby."


How about those who want more money for "improving" education. Money is always the answer. (I am really laughing our loud)


As if unqualified black and hispanic students are the only happy receivers of "social promotion."

If anything, white parents and students feel more entitled to a high school diploma and are more likely to fight for it. Not always by getting better grades, but sometimes by complaining to administrators, starting lawsuits, and insinuating that they've been the victims of reverse discrimination.


I don't know what happens in other states, but in CA, I register myself as a private school and issue a high school diploma to my graduates. It's earned, believe me.

So I'd think they'd count as high school grads. Although no one has ever called me up and polled me.

If a GED is supposed to be an EQUIVALENCY degree, I think it should count as graduating. It's supposed to be EQUIVALENT to a diploma. It seems to me to be an efficient way to get high achievers out of the busy work of filling up their time when they already know enough to graduate.


Thanks so much for bringing this study to the Freaknomics community.

One question: Does this study show that integration as a path to educational excellence has been a failure? When schools were integrated in the 70's the conventional wisdom said that over time the integration of public schools would narrow the achievement gap between the various ethnic groups.


At some point, Freakonomics posters will stop dancing around the fact that this trend may not signify much of anything. Over the past 40 years, while graduation rates apparently declined, prosperity has risen. As much as education is a whipping boy for various ideologues, The US has increasing levels of education, with little evidence that Americans any less ambitious than in the past.

Stew Bird

"We need to eliminate the ridiculous assumption that everyone is college material and build high school curricula for those who are not."

Why not weed out the weaker students from the start and save a few tax dollars, as well?


Education costs are also increasing to produce these stagnant results. See chart:

Shecky: Education levels are increasing for a portion of society, but I think what this article highlights is the portion of society that is not reaching a minimum standard of education (HS degree) while another portion of society attains advanced degrees.