Press Release

National High School Graduation Rate Hits Record High of 85.8%; Gains Made by Historically Disadvantaged Students in Last Pre-COVID Baseline

WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 23, 2021)—The U.S. Department of Education released data today showing the high school graduation rate for the class of 2019 has reached a record high of 85.8%. These new figures show an increase from the previous year’s rate of 85.3% and indicate continued progress toward equity across the country, as rates for students from historically disadvantaged communities increased by more than the national average.

This positive movement builds on the previous decade of progress, according to the leaders of the GradNation campaign. This is the final year of data before the COVID-19 pandemic upended learning, serving as a baseline for understanding the inequities that existed before the pandemic. Disruptions to the rates in future years are expected and may heavily influence the rates of young people from historically disadvantaged communities who made strides in 2019.

The graduation rate among economically disadvantaged students increased by 0.5% to reach 80% for the first time in the nation’s history. Rates from other marginalized groups also saw increases, which were greater than the increase in the overall rate. The rate increased to:

  • 79.6% for Black students (a 0.6% increase); 
  • 81.7% for Hispanic students (a 0.7% increase); 
  • 74.3% for American Indian and Alaska Native students (a 0.8% increase); 
  • 69.2% for students with limited English proficiency (a 0.9% increase); and
  • 68.2% for students with disabilities (a 1.1% increase).

Additionally, the graduation rate increased by 0.4% to 92.6% for Asian/Pacific Islander students and 0.3% to 89.4% for white students. Rates for these groups remain about 10 percentage points higher than those of their peers.

“Today’s good news validates the important work being done across the country to focus on and support students from marginalized backgrounds. However, the inequitable impacts of the pandemic threaten this progress and will require ongoing and authentic partnership with young people to understand what is needed to help them reach the graduation milestone moving forward,” said Dennis Vega, Interim President & CEO of America’s Promise Alliance.

Although there are no national graduation rate data for students experiencing homelessness and those in foster care, the majority of states have reported these rates and they range significantly, suggesting that more work needs to be done to understand these data. Graduation rates for students experiencing homelessness range from a high of 86% in New Hampshire to a low of 49% in the District of Columbia and Minnesota. For young people in foster care, the rates range from 87% in Montana to 27% in Colorado.

The 2019 data also show that eight states have now crossed the 90% threshold and an additional seven states are within two percentage points or less from doing so.

“By following the evidence of what works and strategically using the federal rescue and recovery dollars, states and districts can continue to raise graduation rates for all students despite the impacts of the pandemic,” said Bob Balfanz, Director at the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The leaders of the GradNation campaign—America’s Promise Alliance, Civic, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, and the Alliance for Excellent Education—said the data released today, coupled with the COVID pandemic, shows the nation the importance of strategies outlined in the “Meeting the Moment Plan,” developed in partnership with the COVID Collaborative, to ensure the education system emerges stronger out of this national crisis. The plan outlines the need to build upon the gains of the past decade by focusing on the states, districts, and high schools where the challenges are the most acute.

“After nearly 20 years of progress in addressing the high school dropout challenge, the educational system has been rattled by the COVID-19 pandemic that has awakened more Americans to equity gaps,” said John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic and the COVID Collaborative. “Our Meeting the Moment plan of action is a good start to ensure we build back better.”

“Many in our nation have been laser focused on improving graduation rates over the last two decades, and the data released today show these efforts are working. This progress – particularly for students from historically disadvantaged communities – is worthy of applause,” said Mylayna Albright, assistant vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility at AT&T. “We still must work to help ensure students from every background receive a first-rate education, and we’re only beginning to understand the effects of the pandemic on young people’s learning. We remain committed to ensuring equitable access to quality learning experiences that prepare young people for success.”

The GradNation campaign will release its annual Building a Grad Nation report in the coming months to further dive into the nation’s progress and challenges through the lens of the secondary school improvement index. The year 2019 is a pre-COVID-19 baseline from which to measure progress and challenge in the future. The report is prepared by Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. It will also highlight new work from Civic around the specific challenges American Indian and Alaska Native and Immigrant students face in educational attainment.

In addition, America’s Promise Alliance is currently conducting a nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 high school-aged youth to better understand how young people perceive the high school experience, particularly as they navigate life and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and amid widespread calls for racial justice. Results of this survey will be available early this summer.

“Our nation has long promised our young people a real chance to succeed,” said Deb Delisle, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “With each release of the latest data, we are reminded of how far our nation still needs to go to deliver on that promise. Until we close the opportunity gaps for students of color, students from low-income families, and other students facing the greatest challenges, we can never truly celebrate.”

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America’s Promise Alliance is the driving force behind a nationwide movement to improve the lives and futures of America’s youth. Its work is anchored in the belief that every young person deserves to succeed, and every adult is responsible for making that happen. By bringing together hundreds of national nonprofits, businesses, community and civic leaders, educators, citizens, and young people, the Alliance does what no single organization can do on its own: catalyze action on a scale that reaches millions of young people. www.AmericasPromise.org