Gaps Persist Despite Rising High School Graduation Rates

The nation’s graduation rate climbed to 78 percent, but is lower among minority groups.

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The number of Pell Grant recipients at a school can help reveal its commitment to diversity.
The number of Pell Grant recipients at a school can help reveal its commitment to diversity.

The nation's high school graduation rate has climbed to its highest level since 1974, but minority students continue to lag behind, according to public school data released yesterday by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Roughly 78 percent of high schoolers graduate within four years, NCES reported, using figures from the 2009-2010 school year. That rate falls to 66 percent among black students and 69 percent for American Indian students.

Minority students have made progress, though. Around 59 percent of black students graduated in 2006, and the dropout rate among that student group was 6.3 percent, compared with 5.5 percent in 2010.

[Read why discussing race could help close the achievement gap.]

The graduation rate for Latino students—the largest minority group—jumped 10 percentage points between 2006 and 2010, and some experts believe shifting immigration policies could spur further gains.

Those policies include deferred action, which gives undocumented students temporary protection from deportation and allows them to qualify for work authorization if they graduate from high school and meet other criteria, as well as state-level DREAM Acts that allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition at some public universities.

"The main purpose of offering resident tuition to undocumented students is to encourage them to stay in high school and be successful," James Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska, said in written testimony to the state legislature's education committee in 2010.

"Since many of these students drop out of high school when they realize that they will not be able to attend college, offering them the opportunity to attain a more affordable college education may also encourage more of them to perform well and graduate from high school," he stated.

Overall, Vermont and Wisconsin have the highest graduation rates, with roughly 91 percent of students in each state finishing high school within four years. North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa followed closely behind with graduation rates of approximately 88 percent in each state.

On the other end of the spectrum, Nevada recorded a four-year graduation rate of 57.8 percent—the lowest of any state. The District of Columbia and Mississippi followed with rates of 59.9 and 63.8 percent, respectively.

[Learn how reducing dropouts could help boost the economy.]

But the highest-performing and lowest-performing states have drastically different student demographics, with the states at the top of the graduation rate scale educating relatively small minority student populations.

Vermont graduated 100 percent of its black and Hispanic students on time—but that combined population totaled just 200 students and accounted for less than 3 percent of the state's 2010 graduates. And black, Hispanic, and American Indian students accounted for 14 percent of 2010 grads in Wisconsin, compared with 38 percent in Nevada and nearly 95 percent in the District.

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