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National Data

According to Editorial Projects in Education Research Center’s analysis from 2013 of high school completion for Education Week’s annual publication Diplomas Count, the national graduation rate stands at almost 75 percent for the class of 2010. This figure is the highest since 1973 and marks the third year of consecutive increases.

Notably, over the past decade the black-white graduation gap has narrowed by 2 points, owing to the more rapid progress made by African-Americans.

That said, nearly 1 million students from this year’s high school class will fail to graduate with a diploma. That amounts to approximately 2,740 students lost each day of the year. And high school graduation rates for minority students and persons with disabilities are still in serious need of the nation’s attention, however, these numbers continue to decline.

For instance, the graduation gaps between Latinos and whites and between Native Americans and whites have narrowed over the past decade. Yet a massive 30-percentage-point gap divides Asian-American and Native American students, the groups with the highest and lowest graduation rates still exists.

According to Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, in 2008, nearly a quarter of the population of non-institutionalized persons aged 21 to 64 years with a disability had attained less than a high school education.

An estimated 34.0 percent of non-institutionalized persons aged 21 to 64 years had an educational attainment of a high school diploma or equivalent.

Data Source

The EPE center uses the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) method to calculate high school graduation rates, for on time completers solely. There are various methods used for calculating the public school graduation rate and the CPI method adheres to the guidelines established under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by counting only students receiving standard high school diplomas as graduates. Recipients of General Educational Development diplomas, certificates of attendance, and other nondiploma credentials are treated as nongraduates in this context. States are likewise mandated to adopt a similar definition of a graduate for the rates they calculate for adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the federal law (although they may adopt different definitions for other purposes).

The CPI method represents the high school experience as a process rather than an event, capturing the four key steps a student must take in order to graduate: three grade-to-grade promotions (9 to 10, 10 to 11, and 11 to 12) and ultimately earning a diploma (grade 12 to graduation). Each of these individual components corresponds to a grade-promotion ratio. Multiplying these four grade-specific promotion ratios together produces the graduation rate.

High school graduation rate data is also collected by the U.S. Census Bureau as part of its American Community Survey. The data is available only at the state and county level. The best place to obtain the state-by-state data is the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) Web site. To get the county-level data, see  “Learn more” below.

The estimates from Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute above are based on a sample of 178,808 persons who participated in the 2008 American Community Survey (ACS).

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics research was drawn from the annual October Current Population Survey (CPS), the annual Common Core of Data (CCD) collections, and the annual General Education Development Testing Service (GEDTS) statistical reports.


A high school credential is the minimum requirement for most jobs—and is a necessary requirement for entry into most colleges and universities. As part of an annual survey, the U.S. Census asks young adults if they have earned a high school diploma or its equivalency. The data provides insight into the education pipeline and serves as a benchmark for viewing local graduation rates.

How to Use the Data

The data sheds light on the percent of young adults who do not have high school credentials. Young people who do not receive a high school credential earn less money, pay less taxes, and are more likely to spend time in prison than those who do.

How the details were measured

The data is reported as the percent of 18–24 year olds with at least a high school diploma or its equivalency. It can be broken down by race, gender, and current income level.

Limitations of the data

The data has three limitations:

  • The survey gives credit for any type of high school credential, including certificates of completion and passing a General Educational Development (GED) exam.
  • The survey features self-reported data, which is not always reliable.
  • The survey does not account for where young adults are educated. Some states do an excellent job of educating their students, but then those students leave for other states. Other states don’t do a great job helping their students graduate, but import a lot of well-educated young adults from other states.

Key Questions to Ask

How does the Census data compare to locally collected graduation rates?

While the Census data should not be directly compared to a high school graduation rate—the two indicators have different definitions and methodologies—the data can serve to benchmark the accuracy of local data and provide some insight onto what happens to students who drop out and earn a GED or take longer than four years to receive a diploma.

How are our student subgroups doing?

The Census data can be broken down by race and gender and by median earnings by educational attainment. Analyzing this data is important to your understanding of how state and local education systems serve students of diverse backgrounds.

What is the margin of error?

Some of the educational attainment data in the American Community Survey has significant margins of error. For instance, its report of the percent of 18–24 year olds in Washington, D.C. holding a high school credential has a margin of error of almost seven percentage points. This means that D.C.’s actual rate could be seven points higher or seven points lower than what is reported. A more detailed explanation of the margin of error can be found in the Consumer’s guide to education research on the Center for Public Education Web site.

Learn More

The Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey contains lots of data on educational attainment. There is county-by-county data on adult educational attainment for various age ranges (18–24; 24–35; and even 18–64) and educational levels (e.g., only high school, associates degree, bachelors degree). NCHEMS also publishes data from the decennial U.S. Census survey regarding the percent of 18–24 year olds with a high school credential or its equivalency. While the decennial data is from 2000, it does not have the margin of error issues associated with the 2009 American Community Survey.

You can download the raw educational attainment data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder tool for every county in the country. To obtain the data, you should visit the American Community Survey site, and then click on detailed tables, then geographic area, and then choose table C15001, which is titled “Sex by age by educational attainment for the population 18 years and over.” To calculate the percent of students, you will also need to download the total number of adults. To get that piece of information, visit the American Community Survey site and then click on detailed tables, then geographic area, and then choose table number B01001, which is titled “Sex by age.”

Additional Resources

Demonstrating success:

Texas school district tackles truancy—Truancy played a big role in the dropout rate in this Texas school district. But with a coordinated, preventive effort in truancy intervention, this problem is on the decline and the district expects even more improvement in the future.

Food for thought at a Vermont elementary school—Hands-on learning experiences help this school’s English language learners to engage and connect to content.