While high school graduation rates have improved recently, the United States still faces a significant problem with students dropping out of high school or failing to complete school on time.  About 25% of students who start high school as 9th graders fail to graduate four years later.  There are a myriad of factors that affect whether or not a student drops out of school, and dropping out is considered to be more of a “process” than a single event.  While some ethic groups, such as African-American and Hispanic students are more likely to drop out, the factors that cause a student to drop out are complex and varied.  In fact, one might predict that students of parents who have college degrees themselves would not drop out at high rates.

However, data from a National Center for Educational Statistics longitudinal study of 20,000 students entering high school in 2009 found that while dropout rates are correlated to a parent’s educational attainment, the education level of a parent does not protect a student from becoming a dropout.  In fact, 1 in 5 high school dropouts in the study had parents who had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.  While this rate is better than the nearly 4 in 10 high school dropouts whose parents had only completed high school or a GED program, we must acknowledge that even when parents have attained a college education themselves, their children may or may not be destined to do the same.Some of the factors that make a student more likely to drop out, unfortunately, cannot be remedied at the high school level, including poor academic performance starting in early elementary school.  Yet, there are some factors that high schools can address, and as administrators, we need to be aware of those.

We can, at the high school level, attend to student engagement in an effort to to raise graduation rates.  Disengagement from school, which can manifest as lack of attendance or lack of attending in class, is a predictor of failure to complete high school.  When students are actively involved in class and actively involved in the social culture of the school, they are more likely to graduate and graduate on time.  Further, when students have goals and expectations that they will continue their education beyond high school, they are less likely to drop out of school. Schools that help students to see the relevance of their high school courses and how those courses are preparing them for their lives beyond high school are more likely to engage students and keep them in school.

While we are addressing the problem of students who are physically dropping out of school, we also must attend to whether or not our students are using their high school coursework to prepare them for their future goals and aspirations.  Even if they attend high school for four years, can we ensure that they have used their time wisely and that they are well-prepared for the next steps in their life journey?  The longitudinal study of students who entered high school in 2009 found that while 23% of those students wanted to enter a STEM major in college, only 15% of them had earned at least partial credit in calculus.  Further, as of the fall of the year after they graduated, 16% of the graduates had not applied to any type of postsecondary program, and 23% were still “undecided” about their future plans.  So, even when students do not drop out of school, some of them are reaching their graduation day with little to no idea of how to take those next crucial steps in their lives.  In fact, the data from the longitudinal study shows that nearly 50% of students do not continue on to postsecondary education.  This research points to an indication that there may be an issue with the transition process in education.



Dalton, B., Ingels, S.J., and Fritch, L. (2016). High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09) 2013 Update and High School Transcript Study: A First Look at Fall 2009 Ninth-Graders in 2013 (NCES 2015-037rev). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from


National Center for Educational Statistics. (2016).  Datalab Quickstats. U.S. Department of Education.  Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.  Retrieved from


Rumberger, R. & Lim, S.A. (n.d.). Why students drop out of school: A review of 25 years of research.  California Dropout Research Project: Policy Brief 15. UC Santa Barbara.  Retrieved from: