2021 Building A Grad Nation Report

Release date:

October 06, 2021

Building A Grad Nation is authored by Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and released in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Lead sponsor, AT&T, supports Building A Grad Nation as part of AT&T Aspire, the company’s signature philanthropic initiative. The Allstate Foundation is a supporting sponsor. 


For over a decade, the GradNation campaign has focused the nation on improving high school graduation rates for all students to reach a 90 percent graduation rate equitably by 2020. Steady progress has been made, with 15 consecutive years of increasing graduation rates and, in 2019, the nation reached another all-time high graduation rate of 85.8 percent. Since 2000, 4.5 million more students have graduated from high school on-time rather than leaving school without a diploma.

The first section of this report will explore these high school graduation trends across the nation in greater depth, examining progress to date. It also charts a path forward to realize the highly achievable gains necessary to reach a 90 percent graduation rate.

Even more encouraging than national trends is the fact that progress has been driven by historically marginalized student populations. Black, Hispanic, and low-income students have all out-paced increases in the national graduation rate. Though shrinking, equity gaps do remain and reaching a 90 percent graduation rate with equity will require recommitting to improving outcomes for underserved students, including students with disabilities, English Learners, and students experiencing homelessness.

In the second section, this report explores reaching a 90 percent graduation rate for all students, highlighting both the continued improvement of historically marginalized student subgroups and the equity gaps that linger. In addition, we analyze the high schools where on-time graduation remains elusive.

Next year, the National Center of Education Statistics will release data on the class of 2020. The 2020 school year, however, has become a pivotal year for an entirely different reason—it was ground zero for disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students, educators, and policymakers continue to reckon with the pandemic and the challenges it has brought. The impact of the pandemic will be studied for years to come, but the next year’s data will help grow the understanding of what schools went through. For this reason, the work of the GradNation campaign is more important than ever before.

States must use strong data to inform evidence-based decisions to support students as they continue to deal with the fallout from COVID-19. To help in this effort, the third section of this report shares data for states to develop Meeting the Moment Plans that center historically underserved students and communities, targeting the districts with the greatest level of student need and the highest concentration of students falling off-track to graduate. These data are based on 50 state profiles that accompany the release of this report and examine each state’s remaining challenge in graduating students ready for college and career.

Throughout, the report also highlights best practice in improving high school graduation rates and college and career readiness, explores the emerging data on the impacts of COVID-19, and features evidence-based policy options.

Our Goal: Increase the nation’s on-time high school graduation rate to 90% for the class of 2020

The GradNation campaign provides those working to increase high school graduation rates with data, best practices and opportunities to connect and learn from one another.


In 2019, the national graduation rate reached 85.8 percent. This marks an all-time high and an increase from 79 percent in 2011, the first year the Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) was reported, and 71 percent in 2001, when the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) was still used, which closely approximated the ACGR.

Progress, however, has slowed. The national graduation rate increased just 0.5 percentage point from 85.3 percent in 2018, matching the slowest year-to-year growth in the ACGR and keeping the nation off pace from reaching a 90 percent graduation rate by the class of 2020. Reaching a national 90 percent graduation rate would require an additional 160,603 students to graduate on-time.

From 2018 to 2019, historically underserved students once again drove gains in the national average graduation rate. Black and Hispanic students, English Learners, and students with disabilities all outpaced the national rate of gain, while low-income students reached an 80 percent graduation rate for the first time. It is imperative that the nation continues to grapple with racial inequities in the education system that has produced these gaps to build a Grad Nation for all.


Each state has its own unique strengths and challenges in supporting students. State-level graduation rate data makes this clear: some states have made tremendous progress, passing the 90 percent mark, while others have stagnated or lost ground in their quest for a 90 percent on-time graduation rate.

In 2019, Wisconsin became the latest state to reach a 90 percent graduation rate, joining Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia as the only states to have reached this benchmark. These eight states represent a geographically and socioeconomically diverse subset of the nation, illustrating that the 90 percent goal is attainable. Another 8 states were within 2 percentage points of a 90 percent graduation rate, while 15 states needed less than 1,000 additional graduates to achieve it in 2019.

Promisingly, for the first time, no state had a graduation rate below 75 percent.


From 2018 to 2019, historically underserved students once again drove gains in the national average graduation rate. Black and Hispanic students, English Learners, and students with disabilities all outpaced the national rate of gain of 0.5 percentage point, while low-income students reached an 80 percent graduation rate for the first time. All of these populations, however, have graduation rates well below their white, Asian, and higher-income peers.

Where We Stand…

Low-Income Students: Low-income students reached an 80 percent graduation rate for the first time. The gap between low-income students and non-low- income students for the class of 2019 was 11.4 percentage points, consistent with 2018. In 2019, low-income students accounted for 49.1 percent of the 2019 graduating cohort, but 69.2 percent of students who failed to graduate from high school on time. In the last 10 years, the number of states with a low-income graduation rate higher than 80 percent has grown to 22 states, including 4 with a rate above 85 percent (Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Texas). At the state level, graduation gaps between low-income students and their counterparts ranged from 22.3 percentage points in Minnesota to 5.9 percentage points in Kentucky.


Black Students: Black students continue to drive national graduation rate progress. In 2019, Black students had a graduation rate of 79.6 percent, marking an increase of 0.6 percentage point since 2018 and 12.6 percentage points since 2011. Yet, high school graduation rates for Black students continue to lag their peers—the gap between Black and white student graduation rates in 2019 was 9.8 percentage points. In 2019, Black students accounted for 15.4 percent ofthe graduating cohort, but 22.1 percent of the nation’s on-time non-graduates.

The graduation rate for Black students in 2019 varied widely throughout states: it approached 90 percent in four states—Alabama (89.8 percent), Delaware (88.0 percent), Texas (86.2 percent), and West Virginia (88.0 percent). Yet, in New Mexico and Ohio, less than 7 in 10 Black students graduated on time. The graduation gap between Black and white students ranged from a high of 22.4 percentage points in Wisconsin to just 1.0 percentage point in Hawaii.

Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) for Black, Hispanic, and White Students from 2010–11 to 2018–19

Hispanic Students: Hispanic students have also been key drivers of gains in high school graduation rates and reached a graduation rate of 81.7 percent in 2019. While this progress is promising, a significant gap remains between Hispanic students and their white peers of 7.7 percentage points. Hispanic students accounted for 25.6 percent of the 2019 graduating cohort, yet they comprised 33.1 percent of the nation’s non-graduates.

The gap between white and Hispanic students stretched as high as 21.0 percentage points in Maryland and 19.2 points in Virginia. Seven states, however, had Hispanic graduation

rates above 85 percent (Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Missouri, Texas, and West Virginia). A targeted approach for improving outcomes for Hispanic students is possible—over half of California and New Mexico’s 2019 cohorts were Hispanic students, yet their graduation rates for this population remained below 85 percent and below 75 percent, respectively.

Students Experiencing Homelessness: Cohort counts from 49 states and the District of Columbia, however, showed a national graduation rate of 67.7 percent in 2019, the lowest graduation rate nation among all subgroups in the nation. Data from the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) show that over 1.3 million K-12 students were identified as experiencing homelessness during the 2018–19 school year, a 9.6 percent increase over the past five years.

The data show that graduation rates for students experiencing homelessness differ significantly state to state, ranging from a low of 49 percent in Minnesota, to a high of 86 percent in New Hampshire. An increase of 0.2 percentage point since 2018 is the smallest rate of gain of any subgroup in the class of 2019, emphasizing the challenges students experiencing homelessness face beyond poverty.

Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, by Select Subgroup, 2018–19


Students with Disabilities: In 2019, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was 68.2 percent, a rate well below their peers. Students with disabilities made up 12.3 percent of the 2019 cohort, yet 27.6 percent of students who fail to graduate on time. The graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and their peers without a disability was 20.1 percentage points nationally.

This gap ranged from 5.7 percentage points in Arkansas to 47.9 percentage points in Mississippi. The graduation rate gap was greater than 20 percentage points in 20 states, while only 5 states had gaps less than 10 percentage points. Many states cannot reach a 90 percent graduation rate without major improvements for students with disabilities. This is especially true in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, states that have high school graduation rates above the national average, but where students with disabilities make up more than 40 percent of students not graduating in four years.

English Learners: English Learners’ (EL) graduation rate increased to 69.2 percent in 2019. The on-time graduation rate for EL students is 75 percent or higher in 38 states. Yet, EL students’ graduation rate still trailed the national average by 16.6 percentage points. English Learners graduated at a rate 17.9 percentage points below their non-English Learner peers. Graduation rate gaps for English Learners ranged from a high of 51.2 percent in New York to a low of 1.9 percent in South Carolina.

ELs made over 10 percent of the 2019 cohort in nine states comprising as high as 31.4 percent of the cohort in New Mexico. Overall, 7.4 percent of the 2019 cohort were ELs, up from 6.9 percent in 2018. Despite this subgroup growth, ELs comprise a disproportionate rate of the nation’s non-graduates. In 2019, they made up 16.1 percent of all students who failed to graduate in four years.

Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools: The Every Student Succeeds Act requires the identification of low-graduation-rate high schools that enroll at least 100 students and have a graduation rate of 67 percent or lower. In 2019, there were 1,864 low-graduation-rate schools, a significant decrease from 2,062 in 2018. Despite this progress, low-graduation-rate high schools are still responsible for a disproportionate number of nongraduates.

Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools by Type, 2018-19


In 2019, they accounted for 11 percent of all high schools and 7 percent of overall enrollment, but 26 percent of non-graduates. Students who are low-income (44.4 percent in all high schools vs. 55.7 percent in low-graduation-rate high schools), Native (1.0 vs. 2.1 percent), Hispanic (25.8 vs. 31.1 percent), and Black (14.8 vs. 26.1 percent) were all overrepresented at low-graduation-rate high schools in 2019, emphasizing the need to improve outcomes at these schools for a more equitable and just education system.


As noted in this and prior Building A Grad Nation reports, significant progress has been made in making on-time high school graduation a more common outcome for all student subgroups. At the same time, it is clear that additional improvement is urgently needed if this nation is to reach equal opportunity for all. This was true before the pandemic and is more so now.

States face different challenges to meet the current moment and finish the job of graduating all students from high school ready for college and career in the midst of a global pandemic and its impacts. To assist states in developing customized Meeting the Moment Plans aligned with their current circumstances, we pulled data from multiple sources and developed state-level data profiles that help illuminate the particular challenges and opportunities in each state. These profiles include graduation rate data by subgroup, targeted analysis of where students disproportionately fall off-track to graduate, and data on the level of student need states, districts, and schools are facing by mapping chronic absentee data with poverty rates and rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Analyzing the state data profiles clarified that while challenges and opportunities vary across states, there are also different groups of states that share similar challenges or have been more successful in meeting those challenges. This creates an opportunity for these states to collaborate on solutions and learn from each other’s efforts.

Key points of the state profiles:

  • Nationally, most non-graduates are highly concentrated in a very small sub-set of districts—half are in 431 districts, which is only 4 percent of all school districts nationwide. On the other side of the spectrum, about a quarter of non-graduates are more widely dispersed across 9,906 districts nationwide. At the state level, the concentration and spread of non-graduates resulted in 50 percent or more of non-graduates being concentrated in 10 or fewer school districts in half of the states. 
  • Since states and districts made different choices in the extent to which they enabled and encouraged the growth of alternative, charter, and virtual high schools, there is now considerable variation across states in the types of high schools where the remaining non-graduates are educated. 
  • Every state but seven students with disabilities are disproportionately represented among non-graduates. In six states, 40 percent or more of all non-graduates are students with disabilities. In 16 additional states, 30 to 39 percent of all non-graduates are students with disabilities. Providing students with disabilities the supports they need to graduate needs to be an urgent national priority.
  • Most states experienced declines in proficient score on the 8th grade Math NAEP exam over the most recent administration. This is a clear warning sign, as 8th grade math skills are a strong determinant of success in high school STEM courses, which, in turn, is needed for students to be ready to major in STEM fields in college.

Continue to improve graduation rate data collection and reporting. There still are many ways to improve data quality and ensure the most accurate data is reported of the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate. These include addressing variations across states and better data disaggregation, including by gender.

Promote policies that reduce damaging academic disparities. Although the graduation rate gaps between Black, Hispanic, low-income, and Native American students and their white, more affluent peers are closing, these students remain behind in crucial education indicators.

Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers. The transition from high school to postsecondary education to careers can be challenging for students. K-12 education leaders, postsecondary institutions, and federal policymakers can ease this transition.

Align diploma requirements with college- and career-ready standards. States should work to strengthen the pathway between high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.

Further examine credit recovery programs. Although high-quality models exist to get students back on track, the growth of credit recovery courses has also led to online learning without teacher or student interaction, which has raised questions about the rigor of credit recovery programs.

Continue to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 and address education gaps it exposed. The COVID-19 pandemic and quick transition to online learning exposed many gaps in the U.S. education system—broadband access, socioeconomic differences, and increased hardships for students experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities.

Expand the use of Early Warning Systems. Early Warning Systems are one of the most effective means districts can use to increase graduation rates in all their high schools. 

Establish a Student Success Corps. A Student Success Corps would help increase local capacity and person power to help educators, practitioners, and families by providing the right supports to the right students in the right places at the required scale and intensity.


Click here to access the press release.

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Building A Grad Nation is authored by Matthew Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Eleanor Manspile of Civic and Bob Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and released in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Together, the four organizations lead the GradNation campaign, a nationwide effort to boost the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the workforce.

This year’s report, presented by lead sponsor AT&T, is the twelfth annual update on the progress and challenges in raising high school graduation rates. AT&T’s support of Building A Grad Nation is part of the company’s longstanding commitment to education. Since 2008, AT&T has committed $600 million to programs that help millions of students across all 50 states and around the world, particularly those in underserved communities.



The 5 Promises

The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below:

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