High school graduation rates have risen steadily, and nearly 9 out of 10 young Americans now receives a high school diploma. Good news…except it’s not true. Nobel laureate Jim Heckman and Paul LaFontaine point out that the usual way of computing graduation rates way overstates the number of diplomas given. The number you most commonly see measures high school “completion” as a fraction of the number of 18 to 24 year olds. The trouble is, “completion” counts GED’s as if they were truly the equivalent of real high school diplomas. (More on GED’s tomorrow.) The right method is to count the number of real diplomas given in a particular year and compare that to the number of 17-year olds. I’ve updated Heckman and La Fontaine’s work in this picture:
Using the misleading graduation numbers makes it look like we do a good job, and one that’s steadily improved for three decades. The truth is today’s graduation rate is lousy. The real numbers also reveal that after decades of decline, some real progress has been made in the last ten years. In fact the most recently data shows a record graduation rate, having finally edged out the previous record… set in 1969.