Press Release

High School Graduation Rates Rise in Some Major U.S. Cities, But Significant Work Remains to Curb Dropout Crisis

Study Looks at Trends Over 10 Years and Economic Landscape for High School Dropouts


Washington, DC – A report released today finds that only about half (53%) of all young people in the nation’s 50 largest cities are graduating from high school on time. Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap, prepared for America’s Promise Alliance by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, shows that despite some progress made by several of these cities between 1995-2005, the average graduation rate of the 50 largest cities is well below the national average of 71 percent, and there remains an 18 percentage point urban suburban gap. 

“The 10-year graduation rates show that progress is being made in some of America’s largest cities, but significant work remains,” said Alma Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance, which was founded in 1997 with her husband, Gen. Colin Powell as its founding chair. “In order to continue to move forward and make the U.S. competitive in today’s global economy, we must work together like never before to provide the supports that young people need in order to graduate high school ready for college, work, and life.”  

Cities that saw the greatest improvement in graduation rates include Philadelphia, Pa. (23 percentage points); Tucson, Ariz. (23 percentage points); Kansas City, Mo. (20 percentage points); El Paso, Tex. (14 percent percentage points); Portland, Ore. (13 percentage points); and New York City (13 percentage points). Other cities with an increase of 10 or more percentage points in graduation rates were Atlanta, Ga.; Austin, Tex.; Columbus, Oh.; Dallas, Tex.; Fort Worth, Tex.; Mesa, Ariz.; and Miami, Fla. Still, 19 of the country’s 50 largest cities have seen the graduation rate at their principal school district decline within the last decade. Those with the greatest decrease in graduation rates include Las Vegas, Nev. (-23 percentage points); Wichita, Kan. (-18 percentage points); Omaha, Neb. (-15 percentage points); Arlington, Tex. (-12 percentage points); Albuquerque, N.M. (-7 percentage points); and San Francisco, Calif. (-7 percentage points).

Nationwide, nearly one in three U.S. high school students fails to graduate with a diploma. In total, approximately 1.2 million students drop out each year – averaging 7,000 every school day or one every 26 seconds. Among minority students, the problem is even more severe with nearly 50 percent of African American and Hispanic students not completing high school on time.

"As the president said, every young person who drops out of high school is not only quitting on himself but is also quitting on his country. Similarly, every high school dropout represents not only a failure on the part of a school and an individual, but a larger failure of society to lead our children to success in education,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education.

Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap also looked at the economic and employment landscape for those with varied educational levels, including those without a high school diploma. It revealed that those who drop out of high school are less likely to be steadily employed, and earn less income when they are employed, compared with those who graduate from high school. Approximately one-third (37 percent) of high school dropouts nationwide are steadily employed, and are more than twice as likely to live in poverty. 

The report revealed that high school dropouts account for 13 percent of the adult population, but earn less than six percent of all dollars earned in the U.S. In the 50 largest cities, the median income for high school dropouts is $14,000 – significantly lower than the median income of $24,000 for high school graduates and $48,000 for college graduates. Nationally, high school dropouts were also the only group of workers who saw income levels decline over the last 30 years.

“Research is clear about what helps kids stay in school, and as we’ve all come to realize with the current economic crisis, investing in education is not only an essential part of improving graduation rates, but of supporting meaningful economic recovery. Our government has shown bold leadership in elevating education, but this means the real work must begin now” said Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO, America’s Promise Alliance. “We must seize this historic moment and make sure that young people are surrounded by strong support systems, caring teachers, proper nutrition, a safe place to learn and be after school, and opportunities to give back to others. Learning from the example set forth by our summits, we know that by working together we can make sure our children graduate with the skills they need to succeed.” 

In an effort to reduce America’s high school dropout rates, the Alliance introduced the Dropout Prevention Campaign in April 2008. To date, 35 high-level summits have been held in cities nationwide – bringing together more than 14,000 mayors and governors, business owners, child advocates, school administrators, students, and parents to develop workable solutions and action plans. An additional 51 are planned to take place before the end of the year, and all 105—one in all 50 states and 55 cities with the largest dropout rates—will be completed by April 2010.  The presenting sponsor for the Dropout Prevention Campaign is the State Farm Insurance Company. Other major sponsors include AT&T, The Boeing Company, Ford Motor Company Fund, ING Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, The Wal-Mart Foundation, Simon Foundation for Education, Chevron, Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Casey Family Programs, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bank of America, The Annenberg Foundation, and Capital One.

Already, cities and states that held summits last year have started implementing changes based on the discussions, and early results are promising. One of the most significant success stories is happening in Detroit, the first city to host a summit. The city set a 10-year goal to graduate 80 percent of its youth from the 35 high schools with significant dropout rates. To support this effort, the local United Way announced the creation of The Greater Detroit Venture Fund, a $10 million fund to assist these schools and improve ACT scores so students are better prepared for college. Since this summit, the city has shuttered, reconstituted, or clustered together 11 of those 35 schools as part of a comprehensive turnaround process. Further summit success stories can be found in Louisville, Ky.,—which set a 10-year goal to cut dropout rates in half, and Tulsa, Ok., where as a result of their summit, an innovative career exploration program was developed.

Experts say that dropping out of high school affects not just students and their families, but the country overall – including businesses, government, and communities. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that high school dropouts from the Class of 2006-07 will cost the U.S. more than $329 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over their lifetimes. Experts say that those who drop out are more likely to be incarcerated, rely on public programs and social services, and go without health insurance than those who graduate from high school.

Other Report Findings:

Other findings of the analysis released today include:

  • Sixteen of the nation’s 50 largest cities had a graduation rate lower than 50 percent in the principal school district serving the city.
    • Those with the lowest graduation rates include Indianapolis (31 percent), Cleveland (34 percent), Detroit (38 percent), Milwaukee (41 percent), Baltimore (42 percent), Atlanta (44 percent), Los Angeles (44 percent), Las Vegas (45 percent), and Columbus (45 percent).
    • Students in the suburban areas of the nation’s 50 largest cities were considerably more likely to graduate (77 percent) than students in the country’s urban schools (59 percent).
      • Cities with the largest gap between their suburban and urban schools include Cleveland (43 percentage points), Baltimore (39 percentage points), Columbus (38 percentage points), Milwaukee (35 percentage points), and Nashville (33 percentage points).


      The report, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, analyzes school district data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (2004-05). The country’s 50 largest cities were identified using 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and economic and employment conditions were gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 American Community Survey.


      About the America’s Promise Alliance

      America’s Promise Alliance is the nation’s largest partnership alliance comprised of corporations, nonprofit organizations, foundations, policymakers, advocacy and faith groups committed to ensuring that children receive the fundamental resources – the Five Promises – they need to lead successful, healthy and productive lives and build a stronger society. Building on the legacy of our founder General Colin Powell, the Alliance believes a child’s success is grounded in experiencing the Five Promises – caring adults; safe places; a healthy start; an effective education; and opportunities to help others – at home, in school and in the community. For more information, visit