High School, College Completion Rates Continue to Rise

By Catherine Gewertz — May 28, 2015 3 min read
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New federal data show that the rates of high school graduation and bachelor’s degree completion are on the rise, and traditionally underserved students are driving some of the biggest gains.

This is but one of the many intriguing tidbits for education-watchers in the most recent “Condition of Education” report, a massive data dump that landed with a silent thud today in cyberspace, courtesy of the National Center for Education Statistics. And it’s interesting to take a look at, since President Barack Obama’s administration has put such a heavy emphasis on high school and college completion.

A quick glance at the graphs on high school and four-year-college completion shows the upward trend since 1990. Here’s the high school graph. Since they focus on people in their mid to late 20s, these numbers look a lot better than they would if the government had tracked the number of students who had earned diplomas within a couple years of high school. But even still, they’re worth a look for their overall direction, and the breakout of attainment by race and ethnicity.

Here’s the graph for college completion:

What these graphs don’t show, however, are the exact size of the gains each year and where they’re coming from. For that, you have to go the dazzling Table 104.20.

So let’s take a look at how the numbers have moved from 2009, when Obama took office, to 2014, the most recent data included in the new “Condition of Education.” We can compare that period to the previous five-year period, 2004-2009. These numbers can’t establish causality, of course, because a lot of factors shape them. But they’re still intriguing, given the big push for improving our high school and college outcomes.

High school completion:

2009 to 2014, all adults 25-29 years old: gained 2.2 percentage points (2004 to 2009: gained 2 percentage points)

2009 to 2014, whites: 1 point gain. (2004 to 2009: 1.3 point gain)

2009 to 2014, blacks: 3 point gain (2004 to 2009: .2 point gain)

2009 to 2014, Hispanics: 5.8 point gain (2004 to 2009: 6.5 point gain)

2009 to 2014, Asians: 1.2 point gain (2004-2009: 1 point gain)

Bachelor’s degree completion:

2009 to 2014, all adults 25-29 years old: 3.4 percentage-point gain. (2004 to 2009: 1.9 percentage-point gain)

2009 to 2014, whites: 3.6 point gain (2004 to 2009: 2.7-point gain)

2009 to 2014, blacks: 3.5 point gain. (2004 to 2009: 1.8 point gain)

2009 to 2014, Hispanics: 2.9 point gain (2004 to 2009: 1.3 point gain)

2009 to 2014, Asians: 4.4 point gain (2004 to 2009: 4.5 point decline)

At the diploma level, black and Hispanic students made the biggest gains in the last five years, but each group offers a distinct profile of improvement over time. While black students made little progress in high school graduation rates in the five years before the Obama administration took office, they made big gains in the five years since, according to the NCES data. Hispanic students, on the other hand, saw a big improvement in the five years leading up to Obama’s election, and a more moderate one since then.

At the bachelor’s degree level, black students didn’t show as big a leap in attainment from one five-year period to another. The modest gain of 2004 to 2009 improved in the most recent five years, but not as sharply as it did at the high school level. A similar pattern shows with Hispanic students. But black students’ rate of improvement in earning bachelor’s degrees kept pace with that of white students in the past five years. Asian students rebounded from a decline in bachelor’s degree attainment the previous five years.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.