For years, people have gotten the same message. Go to school, graduate, get a good job, and live happily ever after. While the importance of education has been drilled into the minds of millions of young people, not everyone makes it to the finish line. The good news is that statistics are showing an uptick in graduation rates and a slight decline in dropout rates.

The bad news is that there are still many obstacles that stand in students’ way and keep them from reaching their goals.

High School Graduation and Dropout Rates

More students are graduating from high school now than ever before. The National Center for Education Statistics showed that the average graduation rate across the US was 83 percent for the 2014-2015 school year.

When compiling its data, the National Center for Education Statistics uses something called the adjusted cohort rate. The rate doesn’t just look at the number of students who finished high school during the year. Instead, it examines how many students have finished school with the standard amount of time (four years). To get those statistics, the center looks at the number of students who enrolled in the first year of high school four years ago compared to the number who graduated that year.

Although the average graduation rate is 83 percent, there’s a fair amount of variation across the states.  Some states and areas have considerably lower rates of high school graduates while others are well above the average.

As NPR reported, during the 2014-2015 school year, New Mexico and Washington, DC had the lowest graduation rates, between 65 and 70 percent. Iowa had the highest graduation rate, between 90 and 95 percent.

The just under half of all states had graduation rates above average — between 85 and 90 percent. Meanwhile, 12 states had rates between 80 and 85 percent and another 12  had rates between 75 and 80 percent.

Although today’s graduation rates are encouraging for people who want students to stay in school, they do reveal that nearly 20 percent of high school students don’t get to walk across the stage and pick up their diplomas.

According to Do Something, every 26 seconds, a student drops out of school, adding up to more than 1.2 million high school dropouts per year. Although the dropout rate has fallen since 1990, it’s still around 7 percent.

High school dropout statistics show that some schools are much worse than others when it comes to student success. These schools are often called “drop out factories” and have graduation rates below 60 percent.

In recent years, the number of dropout factories in the US has fallen, Business Insider reported. In some cases, the schools were shut down while in other cases, districts pumped money and resources into the struggling schools to help improve their graduation rates.

What Causes People to Leave High School?

There’s no one single reason why a high school student might decide that dropping out is the best option for him or her. A variety of social and economic factors can influence a student’s decision to leave school. The Colorado Department of Education identifies four categories or classifications that can help people better understand why some students leave school:

  • Students are pushed out – Behavioral or academic problems, or a combination of both, can cause schools to label some students as difficult or problem students. In some cases, schools might actively encourage these students to leave or might recommend that they transfer to a different school.
  • Students fade out – In some instances, schools fail students not by holding them back when they don’t do well academically, but by pushing the students forward to the next grade level, even if the student doesn’t show competency. That can lead to students getting frustrated with their inability to understand their assignments or cause them to feel deep boredom in the classroom because they aren’t engaged. These students don’t see the point in going to school since they aren’t learning anything, and usually decide to drop out as soon as they can legally do so.
  • Students fail – Some students decide to leave school after struggling with the material for years and continually earning low grades and low test scores. In many cases, a student will drop out because he or she feels so far behind and that there is no way he or she will ever catch up.
  • External life events cause dropout – Sometimes, a student might do well in school and actively like going to class but ends up leaving because of life event. That event might be getting pregnant and giving birth, having a parent or other relative who gets sick or feeling that the student needs to work to support his or her family.

Teen Pregnancy and School

One life event people think about when they hear about dropout rates is teenage pregnancy. The statistics of teenage pregnancy dropping out of school might actually surprise you. Teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2016, there were just 20.3 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19, a drop of nearly 70 percent since the peak teen pregnancy rate in 1991.

While teen pregnancy rates are down, the US still has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world, with nearly one-quarter of women becoming pregnant by the age of 20. Even though that might not seem like a lot, teenage pregnancy and parenting do contribute to the dropout rate.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only about half of all women who gave birth during their teenage years have a high school diploma. Among girls who drop out of school,  nearly a third list pregnancy or being a parent as their reason.

Teen pregnancy also affects college attendance and graduation rates. Just 2 percent of women who have their first child before the age of 18 finish college by age 30.

What’s Being Done to Increase High School Graduation Rates?

A range of programs and services are in place that are designed to help increase graduation rates of high school students. Whether these programs actually help student achievement or just make the numbers look good on paper is a subject of debate, as NPR notes.

One of the most effective ways to increase graduation rates is to reach students who might struggle early in their academic careers. As NPR noted, students from low-income families who attended preschool had higher rates of graduation than a student who didn’t go to preschool.

Some school districts have experimented with offering alternative options to students who struggle in a more traditional classroom setting. These programs often have mixed results. In cases where they take into account the different learning needs and styles of students, they can be very helpful for improving learning.

But there are also instances where the programs are little more than high school lite, designed to pass students on through without actually educating them.

Finally, some schools are artificially inflating their graduation rates by pushing out struggling students. These schools might encourage some students to take the GED exam or might transfer them to alternative schools or recommend homeschooling. Students that leave school to go elsewhere aren’t counted as dropouts, even if they never pass the GED or complete a homeschool curriculum.

College Attendance and Dropout Statistics

While the high school graduation rate might be on the up and up, the college graduation and dropout rate has some room for improvement. Bill Gates, who did drop out of school to start Microsoft, called US college dropout statistics tragic.

Although more people than ever are going to college, they are having a hard time finishing it, at least in the US. Slate reported that the US has the lowest college completion rate among developed countries. Of students who started college in 2010, just 54.8 percent finished within six years.

Certain features seem to make college students more likely to finish school. One of the keys to completing college seemed to be enrolling in a program full-time. Nearly 82 percent of students at four-year schools who enrolled full-time completed their degrees if they stayed in full-time enrollment.

The reasons why a student might drop out of college are similar but also slightly different from the reasons why a student would drop out of high school. Economic considerations can play a significant role,  as some student might realize that the cost of going to school is more than they can afford.

Some students, particularly those who go right from high school to college, end up leaving school because they just can’t handle the demands and pressure of post-secondary education.

For some students, their high school education didn’t fully prepare them for the rigors of college, and they find themselves struggling in the classroom. Around 60 percent of first-year college students learn the hard way that they are ready for higher education.

Students who have to leave high school or college early can get a second chance, though. By 2020, it’s expected that 43 percent of college students will be people over the age of 25.

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