Young male


What’s Working: Four Factors Fueling the Rise of Graduation Rates

Patricia O’Rourke

Despite widespread skepticism of rising graduation rates, America’s Promise regularly comes across schools and communities doing targeted work to close the graduation rate gap in our country. Nowhere was this more true than in the 100+ applications we reviewed for a recent grant opportunity.

In September 2017, the GradNation campaign released the Acceleration Grant opportunity to fund state- and community-level proposals poised to graduate students who are currently less likely to graduate from high school. We received 106 applications—83 from communities and 23 from states—of concerted work in our target geographic areas to improve graduation rates.

Learn more about our grantees here!

Though we were only able to choose two states (Michigan and Georgia) and three communities (Greeley, Colorado; Boyle Heights in Los Angeles; and, Albuquerque, New Mexico), we identified promising trends and practices throughout the review process.  Four factors in particular renewed our hope in the power of states and communities to raise graduation rates:

Tackling Non-Academic Factors Takes Priority.

Almost half— about 45 percent—of applications we received had a focus on non-academic factors, one of the six GradNation action platform items. Schools are reaching outside the traditional scope of education, and driving impact through an intentional focus on the situations outside of school that influence a student’s success. We have heard from students already in past research that the decision to leave high school involves their families, their health, their community—and a measured response to managing these circumstances. Our school systems are listening and responding to their students.

Increase the number and quality of caring adult relationships

This does not mean that youth-serving organizations are ignoring school climate or high-quality data, other action platform items. On the contrary. Virtually every application addressed multiple platform items at once through a variety of interventions. However, we can expect that a more intentional focus on non-academic factors will continue to gain momentum as new ESSA requirements kick in, providing a platform for communities to describe their progress through multiple metrics for non-academic factors, such as chronic absenteeism and social emotional learning.

Deep Partnerships are Addressing Root Causes.

In line with this, non-profits are partnering with school districts to understand student data and the root causes for why youth do not graduate. These are not ad hoc efforts that result in no change. Proposals that demonstrated a focus on both tracking and reacting to multiple signals of underlying circumstances in students’ lives, such as behavior/discipline or trauma, show positive outcomes in learning and student experience.

To learn more about caring adult relationships that are having impact, sign up for our webinar on March 27!

The infrastructure required to do this work spans multiple areas of best practice: data sharing, strategic partnerships, and an increased number of caring adults in the classroom. Communities that are focused on increasing graduation rates are doing so by increasing their ability to break through siloes, and design their systems with students at the center.

Data Matters—Especially when Communities Dig Deep.

Organizations are using publicly available databases to describe their schools and community: race, income, rates for free and reduced meals, and academic performance, among others. While this information can articulate a surface-level case for providing additional supports, it does not provide enough depth to develop the targeted interventions that youth need.

Recognizing this, communities are taking the initiative to dig deeper. We reviewed exciting stories of communities spearheading studies of the specific community-level factors that could be driving outcomes. From focus groups with youth and teachers, to annual surveys, to university partnerships, communities are building their own cases for why supporting students in high school matters—and what to do about it.


However, even among the strongest applications, wide gaps in trackable measures existed for caregiving youth, LGBTQ youth, youth with special needs, and youth in foster care or juvenile justice systems. In a world that is increasingly data driven, these blind spots could affect our ability to address the full range of needs of young people and communicate results to decision-makers.

The Economic Argument is Imperative.

High school graduation fits among multiple goals for communities, but economics is top of mind. Recognizing that the labor market is at an inflection point—where the majority of jobs are now requiring some form of college—proposals signaled a strong desire for high school graduates to fuel a stronger local and national economy.

Low graduation rates translate into economic losses for society, and lifelong economic loss for young people driven by low earning potential. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a 90 percent graduate rate translates into 14,260 new jobs, $7.8 billion in home sales, $159 million in state and local tax revenue, and $2.5 billion in consumer spending. Communities do not want their youth to be left behind in a rapidly developing and increasingly global economy.

The applicants for this grant, who represent hundreds of communities across the country, recognize that it will take a different approach from what the nation did to reach its current high of 84 percent. Fortunately, they are doing just that.

The purpose of the Acceleration Grant is to expand on the current approaches that communities are taking in serving their students. In the coming months, we will uplift the learnings from this cohort of grantees and many others. Sign up for our e-newsletter to get those updates and other stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Learn more about the GradNation Acceleration Initiative

The GradNation Acceleration Initiative, the latest program effort to support the GradNation campaign, is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and AT&T to support existing state and community efforts that are poised to accelerate progress for more young people. The intended outcomes for this work include: an increase to the graduation rate, shared learning for adoption and replication in other states and communities, and strengthened local capacity to improve outcomes for young people based on their needs and strengths. To learn more about other GradNation campaign efforts, visit:

Join the GradNation Learning Community

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.