Q: Are high school students dropping out in record numbers? A: No.

by David Safier

Here's an interesting chart about the percentage of Americans 25 and older who have high school diplomas starting in 1947, using census numbers.


Today, about 85% of U.S. adults over 25 have high school diplomas, the highest number in our history. When we bemoan the number of high school dropouts, we forget that high school inclusion is at record highs.

"When I was a boy/girl in the 50s, people took school seriously. . . ."

In the 50s, just over half of the people from 25 to 29 years had high school diplomas. What would happen today if we took, say, the bottom 30% of high school students and sent them home? High schools would all of a sudden look more serious, right? That's what high schools were like in the 1950s. But do we want to return to a 1950s high school completion which was 30% lower than it is today?

Somewhere in the 1970s, the percentage of high school students getting diplomas peaked at about 85%, and it's possible it will never get higher than that. Keeping the numbers that high means working hard to keep students in school who would rather be elsewhere. It means putting up with poor attendance and classroom disruption at a level we wouldn't have accepted in decades past. If we clamped down harder, we would end up with fewer students in schools, and they would be the more motivated and probably more successful students. The problem teens who weren't in school would be out on the street causing far more serious problems.

If this chart went back further, you would see the percentage of people with high school diplomas more-or-less mirroring the decade: 20% in the 1920s, 30% in the 1930s and so on.

When people talk about the good old days of education or the Goldwater Institute talks about our schools as dropout factories, remember the numbers. Our schools are miles away from perfect and we have to constantly strive to improve them, but they are more inclusive and more successful at educating our populace than any schools in our history.


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