High School Dropout Rate Is Decreasing but Race, Income & Disability Issues Persist

High School Dropout Rate Is Decreasing but Race, Income & Disability Issues Persist
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The completion of secondary education is among the first milestones of students but this does not mean that everyone will walk this path. There are high school students who choose to drop out, be it due to financial issues or academic struggles. Meanwhile, others try their luck at becoming successful dropouts by pursuing their passions at an early age. However, doing so might not be as advantageous as one may think.

Levin and Belfied (2017), as cited by the National Center of Education Statistics (2020), revealed that each high school dropout cost the United States economy $272,000 due to “lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity, and higher reliance on welfare.” The good news is that the status dropout rate or the percentage of all 16 to 24 years old who are not enrolled in school and have not received a high school diploma has decreased by 3.2% between 2010 and 2019. It is now at an all-time low at 5.1%. Still, dropout rates continue to be a problem because yet again U.S. schools are in fear of a dropout surge due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article will tackle relevant data on the current high school dropout rate and why it remains high in the United States. It will also discuss the causes, effects, and possible solutions to this concern.

High School Dropout Rate Table of Contents

  1. Key High School Dropout Rate Statistics
  2. Reasons Why High Schoolers Drop Out
  3. Consequences of Dropping Out of High School
  4. Dropout Prevention Resources for Families and Educators

Key High School Dropout Rate Statistics

Dropout rates intersect with systemic issues on race, sex, and socioeconomic status. This section will demonstrate with the statistical data how these issues permeate the education system.

Dropout Rate by Race

Between 2010 and 2019, there is a considerable improvement in high school student retention as there has been a decrease in the high school dropout rate by year for all races except Pacific Islanders (NCES, 2021). The rates, however, remain high for people of color. In particular, American Indian/Alaska Native high school students have the highest high school dropout rate at 9.6% (NCES, 2021). This is much higher compared to the overall average dropout rate of 5.1% (NCES, 2021).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the demographic breakdown of high school students who drop out are as follows:

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

A 2019 research by the United Way of King County provide some insight into why students of color are more likely to drop out than their white peers. They cited that as majority of teachers in public schools are white, students of color simply do not see themselves in their teachers. In addition, many families belonging to ethnic minorities are low- to middle-income households, making it difficult for the students to get access to the technologies and resources necessary to succeed academically.

Dropout Rate of Students with Disabilities

Special education is made available to students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) passed in 1975. The 13 categories of disabilities according to IDEA are:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-blindness
  3. Deafness
  4. Emotional Disturbance
  5. Hearing Impairment
  6. Intellectual Disability
  7. Multiple Disabilities
  8. Orthopedic Impairment
  9. Other Health Impairment (due to chronic or acute health problems)
  10. Specific Learning Disability
  11. Speech or Language Impairment
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. Visual Impairment

The high school dropout rate for students with the above-mentioned disabilities (10.7%) is more than twice that of the dropout rate of students without disabilities (4.7%) in 2019 (NCES, 2021). According to NCES, in academic years 2018-2019:

  • 72% of students with disabilities graduated with a regular high school diploma
  • 16% of students with disabilities dropped out of school
  • 10% of students with disabilities received an alternative certificate

Some reasons for this could be that while special education is available to them, not all students with disabilities are aware of them or have access to them. In some cases, it could be that the student has unique learning needs that the available programs cannot provide.

High School Dropout Rate 1

Dropout Rate by Sex

In 2019, the high school dropout rate was higher among males (6%) than females (4.2%) (NCES, 2021). As shown in the data provided, this is true for every race/ethnicity except Pacific Islanders:

Source: NCES, 2021

Dropout Rate by Household Income

There is a considerable improvement in the gap between families with the highest and lowest income rates in the aspect of student retention, with the high school dropout rate difference narrowing from 21% in 1990 to 8% in 2013. This is among the reasons why the high school dropout rate is so high in the U.S. Still, students from families with the lowest income are more likely to drop out than students from middle- and higher-income families. This is, of course, due to financial struggles related to sending kids to school. Here are the dropout rates in 2013 according to NCES:

Source: NCES

Dropout Rate by State

In the years 2013-2017, the United States had an average high school dropout rate of 6% (NCES, 2020). The state with the highest dropout rate was New Hampshire at 9.9% (NCES, 2020). It is followed by Louisiana (9.6%), Nevada (9%), and New Mexico (8.6%). 

In contrast, Massachusetts is the state with the lowest dropout rate at 3.8% (NCES, 2020). It is followed by the states of Maine, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Virginia, which all have a high school dropout rates of 3.9%. 

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

Reasons Why High Schoolers Drop Out

Why do high schoolers drop out? According to a study by Dalton, Glennie, Ingels, and Wirt, as cited by the National Dropout Prevention Center, the three main categories of reasons students drop out are school-related, family-related, and employment-related. This section will delve into each of these categories.

School-Related Reasons

The top three school-related reasons high school students drop out of school are they (1) missed too many school days (43.5%), (2) they thought it would be easier to get a general education diploma (40.5%), and (3) they were getting poor grades or failing school (38%) (National Dropout Prevention Center, n.d.). This academic struggle may be traced to earlier school-related difficulties that were not addressed. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who do not read well in third grade are more likely to drop out than finish high school.

Family-Related Reasons

Family-related reasons include becoming pregnant, getting married, and having to take care of or support a family member (National Dropout Prevention Center, n.d.). This cause translates directly to the dropout rates by household income. Students whose families struggle financially are more likely to drop out of school.

The impact of household income on education is even more pronounced as thousands of students have dropped out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has forced many students to focus their attention on finding employment as some of their family members lost their jobs.

Employment-Related Reasons

As mentioned, students leave school for employment reasons, that is, they have a job and could not manage to go to school at the same time (National Dropout Prevention Center, n.d.). According to Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2019, a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, data from 2017 shows that:

  • 46.7% of high school dropouts were employed
  • 44.9% of high school dropouts were not part of the labor force
  • 8.3% of high school dropouts were unemployed

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

Consequences of Dropping Out of High School

Opting not to finish high school is not without drawbacks. It can have a negative impact on a student’s future, particularly in terms of employment and earning potential. These consequences are outlined as follows:

  • Lower Earning Potential. Individuals with less than a high school diploma earn $162 less weekly than those who completed high school. They also made up the highest percentage of unemployed people (11.7%) in America (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).
  • Unemployment Risks. College education has an influence on the employment opportunities available to a student. As such, someone who has not completed high school cannot proceed on to higher education, which would allow them to earn $276 more than the average earnings of all workers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021) and would also put them at much less risk of unemployment.
  • Susceptibility to Lifestyle Problems. High school dropouts are more susceptible to other problems, such as substance and alcohol abuse and other health risks. A report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health titled “Substance Use among 12th Grade Aged Youths by Dropout Status” demonstrate the consequences of dropping out of high school through the following statistical data:
    • 56.8% of high school dropouts smoke cigarettes
    • 41.6% of high school dropouts drink alcohol
    • 32.3% of high school dropouts binge alcohol
    • 31.4% of high school dropouts use an illicit drug
    • 27.3% of high school dropouts use marijuana
    • 9.5% of high school dropouts admit to nonmedical use of prescription-type drugs

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

Dropout Prevention Resources for Families and Educators

In “The Long-Term Impact of Systemic Student Support in Elementary School: Reducing High School Dropout,” published in AERA Open, the authors note that “Reducing dropout is challenging from a policy perspective because students often fail to complete high school for complex reasons that involve factors both inside and outside of schools. Moreover, these factors often manifest and influence student achievement trajectories long before they reach high school. To limit the negative impact of these factors, theory and research suggest that it is possible to intervene early in ways that bolster protective factors in students while also addressing risk factors, though any such intervention must take into account the multidimensionality and cross-domain interdependency of development.”

Indeed, many factors are at play when students decide to stop attending school. Understanding these factors and actively promoting student retention through strategies such as the one laid out by the National Dropout Education Center will be invaluable in ensuring that all students are given equal opportunity to graduate and thereby prosper economically, among other benefits.

Here are some tips from which educators and families may benefit to prevent student dropout:

  1. Give students the option to complete their studies online. E-learning can become a more inclusive environment and many studies have proved that it is just as effective. Asynchronous learning especially will empower working students to take control of their time. They can set aside time for both work and study. Although this requires much effort, it makes graduating a possibility as opposed to traditional learning environments that would require their presence in specific times that conflict with work schedules.
  2. Foster close relations with each other. Both school and home members are important parts of an adolescent’s life. Together, they can create a strong support system, especially for ones struggling academically.
  3. Make it an option to fail. There are learning models, such as competency-based education, that make a learning experience out of failures. Failures are seen in these models as a part of the pursuit to attain mastery. If students are allowed to fail, they would not be so stressed in their academic journey so as to consider just giving up on it.

High School Dropout Rate 2

The Value of High School Education

Data revealed that high school dropout cases intersect with unresolved societal issues, that is, the disadvantaged in the system are also disadvantaged in the education sector, no matter the pedagogical value this sector holds. It also reveals the value of persevering through to high school graduation, especially for the disadvantaged. It will give them the fighting chance to succeed within a system designed against them.

There are ways for educators and families to prevent dropout among students and in a way the generational cycle of poverty, gender gap, health issues, and many more. E-learning is just one of them.

With continued improvement and active solution-making in the education sector, its pedagogy will come alive from concept to action.



  1. Irwin, V., Zhang, J., Wang, X., Hein, S., Wang, K., Roberts, A., York, C., Barmer, A., Bullock Mann, F., Dilig, R., and Parker, S. (2021). Report on the Condition of Education 2021 (NCES 2021-144). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2021144
  2. Lee-St. John, T. J., Walsh, M. E., Raczek, A. E., Vuilleumier, C. E., Foley, C., Heberle, A., Sibley, E., & Dearing, E. (2018). The Long-Term Impact of Systemic Student Support in Elementary School: Reducing High School Dropout. AERA Open. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858418799085
  3. McFarland, J., Cui, J., Holmes, J., and Wang, X. (2019). Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in
    the United States: 2019 (NCES 2020-117). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for
    Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2020117
  4. National Dropout Prevention Center (n.d.). Why Students Drop Out. Retrieved from https://dropoutprevention.org/resources/statistics/quick-facts/why-students-drop-out/
  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021). Education Pays. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm
  6. U.S. Department of Education (2017). Sec. 300.8 Child with a disability. Retrieved from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.8

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