High School Dropout Rate

How many high school dropouts are there every year in the United States? We break down the numbers for you in several different categories, including by state, gender, and ethnicity.

Top Stats

  • In 2014, a student dropped out roughly every 26 seconds. That equated to around 7,000 students dropping out each day.
  • High school dropouts earned about $200,000 less over their lifetimes than high school graduates. That becomes about $1,000,000 less during their lifetimes than college graduates.
  • The American national average dropout rate was 6.3 percent in 2014.
  • More than one-quarter of dropouts did so to take care of a family member or to provide financially for their family.

*Throughout this article, when we refer to “high school dropouts,” we are not including individuals who obtained their GEDs or alternative high school credentials unless noted specifically in the text. 

Before we jump into dropout rates, let’s look at how many students are graduating in each state, based on numbers from school districts and the U.S. Department of Education.

High School Graduation Rates

About 3.3 million public school students are projected to graduate in the 2019-2020 school year. More and more public high school students are on track to getting their diplomas.

We looked at graduation rates by state for the 2016-2017 school year (the most current data available.)

Only five states had graduation rates of 90 percent or above for the 2016-2017 school year: Iowa and New Jersey (tied at 91 percent), and Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, each at 90 percent.

Dropout Rates by State

We looked at what percentage of high school students dropped out (by state) in 2014, which was the most current data available.

Keep in mind these percentages won’t tally with the graduation rate table above, as that data is from the 2016-2017 school year, not the 2014-2015 school year.

In 2014, the national average dropout rate was 6.3 percent of all 16-24 year-olds in the U.S. As you can see from the chart above, several states had higher dropout rates, with Louisiana being the highest with 10.6 percent of all 16-24 year-olds in the state dropping out.

Vermont had the lowest dropout rate, with only 2.7 percent of all 16-24 year-olds dropping out.

But is the dropout rate increasing, decreasing, or staying the same over time? We take a look below.

Dropout Rates Over Time

As you can see from the graph below, the dropout rate has decreased by nearly 50 percent since 1992, from 11 percent to 5.8 percent in 2017.

This means the number of students who drop out of high school each year has markedly decreased.

Is Dropping Out a “Guy Thing”?

According to the data—yes, but barely. You can see from the graph below that males slightly edged out females when it comes to dropout percentages—but not by much.

For example, 6.6 percent of the total male 16-24-year-old U.S. population had dropped out as of 2017, while 5 percent of female 16-24 year-olds were dropouts during that same period.

Between 2010 and 2017, the gap between male dropouts and female dropouts never exceeded three percent, so while there is a slightly higher percentage of males who drop out of school, there isn’t much of a difference between the two groups.

Socioeconomic Breakdowns

The graph below shows the dropout rates among various ethnic groups. It’s wise to use caution when attempting to draw conclusions about the data—we did not examine the contributing factors to dropout rates in each community.

And, just because one ethnic group may have higher dropout rates, it does not mean that the group is less intelligent, less interested in school, or less interested in hard work than another group.

In 1992, nearly 30 percent of all Hispanic individuals in the 16-24-year-old group were high school dropouts. Those numbers decreased drastically for the next 24 years, with only 8.6 percent of the Hispanic population of 16-24 year-olds being dropouts in 2016.

The percentage rose slightly in 2017 to just under 10 percent, but that’s still 20 percentage points lower than in 1992!

The dropout rate also declined for black and white students, going from around 7 percent of the white population in 1992 to less than 5 percent in 2017. However, Asian-American and white students are still far more likely to graduate than Latino & African-American students.

For black individuals in the 16-24-year-old group, the decline was even greater, from just under 13 percent had dropped out in 1992 to just under 6 percent in 2017.

We also looked at segments of the country to see if where students lived affected dropout rates.

As you can see, the South and West had the highest dropout rates of any region in 2006, 2011, and 2015.

While the South still had the highest dropout rates in 2016, they have continued to decline during the ten-year period covered in our chart. The West’s dropout rates have also declined for every year in our chart.

The Northeast remained steady for 2006 and 2011, but dipped in 2015 and rose slightly in 2016.

The Midwest, meanwhile, increased, decreased, and then increased again.

We also wanted to find out not just which students in what areas were dropping out, but why students were leaving high school without getting a diploma.

Why Are Students Dropping Out?

The chart below lists the most popular reasons given by students who left high school without a diploma.

*Note: Responses total more than 100% as students gave more than one reason for dropping out.

As you can see from the chart above, more than one-quarter of high school dropouts had to leave school to help care for their families, while 16 percent didn’t believe a high school diploma was necessary for their chosen career path.

Nearly three-quarters of high school dropouts cited falling behind in classwork and getting bad grades as the reason they dropped out, feeling like it wasn’t possible for them to catch up or improve their grades in time to graduate.

More than 60 percent thought it would be easier for them to get a GED or go to a vocational/alternative school than graduating high school.

Almost 50 percent of students stated they dropped out because they didn’t like school, and getting low grades or not being able to keep up with schoolwork probably goes hand-in-hand with that feeling. In addition, those who were expelled or suspended (19 percent) probably didn’t enjoy school much, either.

So, what does life look like for a high school dropout? We examine that in more detail below.

Life After Dropping Out

Many parents worry that dropping out of high school means their child won’t be able to succeed in life. While dropping out certainly isn’t something we’d advocate, it also doesn’t mean that a child’s future is automatically being thrown away.

We took a look GED completion rates for high school dropouts, college enrollment rates for those students who ended up earning a GED, and job prospects for dropouts.

GED Earners

In 2013, around 816,000 people over the age of 16 took the GED. Around 714,000 of those completed all five sections of the test in 2013.

Of those who completed all sections, 76 percent, or around 541,000, passed every section of the test.

Typically, 35 percent of students who obtain their GEDs enroll in college within one year of passing the exam, while 45 percent are typically enrolled in college within three years of passing the GED exam. And an astounding 90 percent of college students with GEDs tend to remain enrolled in college.

Job Prospects

We also took a look at the employment status of high school dropouts over time.

For the purposes of this graph, “not in workforce” means those people who are not employed but are not looking for employment.

According to the data, more than 40 percent of high school dropouts were in the workforce every year from 2010-2017.

The unemployment rate for dropouts hovered between around 14 percent to almost 19 percent between 2010 and 2016, and dropped to an all-time low of 8.3 percent in 2017.

Clearly, those without diplomas are finding work, but what types of jobs are available to dropouts? We took a look at only those jobs that did not require a high school diploma, GED, or other equivalents.

The list below is a small sampling of jobs for which no GED or high school diploma is required.

  • Warehouse worker (loading/unloading goods, order fulfillment, packaging, operating machinery)
  • Stocker (tracking and replenishing store inventory, sometimes creating displays)
  • Home health aide (training programs for this area may accept individuals without diplomas/GEDs)
  • Beautician/Cosmetologist (attending cosmetology/beauty school is required, however)
  • Server (restaurants/bars)
  • Custodial service
  • Construction worker
  • Truck driver (requires CDL training, some companies may pay for this)

Once experience is gained in any of these fields, often an employee’s level of expertise and field-specific knowledge will outweigh the need for a GED/diploma in order to move ahead.

However, many companies do require this in order to move forward, so check with local employers on what they expect from employees who want to rise in the industry.

With a GED/diploma, and/or vocational school, many other opportunities open up. And, of course, as seen above, nearly half of those students who get GEDs go on to college, which opens up even more job opportunities.

On average, however, high school dropouts earned around $5,000 less per year than individuals who graduated high school (but not college), and around $25,000 less per year than those who graduated college.

Crime Stats

While the future doesn’t have to be bleak for high school dropouts, it can be.

In fact, according to a 2009 study, males who drop out are more than three times more likely to end up in jail, with 10 percent of all male dropouts being incarcerated during their lifetime compared to just 2.8 percent of those who graduate high school.

We look at a few statistics in the infographic below.

The most recent year available for incarceration statistics was 2003, and that data is shown in the graph below.

As you can see, in 2003, nearly 75 percent of inmates in state prisons did not complete high school, and of those, around 40 percent did not have a GED.

For Federal prisons, of the 59 percent who didn’t complete high school, more than one quarter failed to obtain a GED.

In local jails, nearly 70 percent of inmates did not have a high school diploma, and of those, nearly 47 percent did not have their GED.

For probationers, 58 percent had a high school diploma, more than any other group.

We take a look at future dropout trends below.

Future Trends

Is the dropout rate expected to trend upward, or is it going down?

If prior years are any indication, dropout rates should continue to fall or remain steady over the next few years. As more and more schools adopt inclusionary disciplinary methods (in place of suspensions and expulsions), more robust tutoring programs are added, and schools work with struggling students to increasingly ensure that they don’t fall behind their peers, we expect the rate to decrease even more.

In Summary…

While any dropout rate is too high, the rate has decreased by about 50 percent since 1992, with huge gains in the Hispanic community.

Students had many reasons for dropping out, from not liking school to having to care for family.

Students in the South and West have had historically higher dropout rates than other areas of the country, but they are closing the gap.

Those without diplomas are more likely to be arrested than those who earned a diploma, and the majority of inmates in local jails don’t have a high school diploma.

Schools and communities are working to change how students are disciplined and how struggling students are addressed, which will hopefully continue to drive the dropout rate down over the next several years.

Sources

  1. National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts:  Back to School Statistics.”
  2. National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: High School Graduation Rates.”
  3. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 219.70.
  4. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 219.75.
  5. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 219.62.
  6. National Center for Education Statistics, Table 219.73.
  7. National Center for Education Statistics, “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States:  2018.”
  8. GED Testing Service®, “GED® Graduates Make Significant Gains in College Enrollment and Persistence.”
  9. Career Trend, “Jobs That Don’t Require a High School Diploma or GED.”
  10. DoSomething.Org, “11 Facts About High School Dropout Rates.”
  11. Stanford Graduate School of Education, “Schools vs. Prisons:  Education’s the Way to Cut Prison Population.”
  12.  [GenFKD], “How School Drop Outs Impact the Criminal Justice System.”
  13. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Special Report:  Education and Correctional Populations.”