The U.S. high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent for the first time ever and is on track to reach a long-sought goal of 90 percent by 2020, according to newly released federal data and a report from a coalition of groups focused on boosting graduation rates.  

Education leaders hailed the ten-percent increase over the last decade as marked progress and highlighted particularly strong gains among minority students, but they also noted the disparities that exist between states and persistently lower graduation rates in the nation’s major cities.

“Fundamentally, public schools were invented as tools of equity and opportunity, regardless of place of birth,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at an event hosted by Building a GradNation, a group of organizations dedicated to raising graduation rates. “However, today opportunity is in no way equally distributed across the country.”

The National Center for Education Statistics’ report included graduation and drop-out rates for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate estimates the number of students who graduated in four years divided by the number of students who enter in grade 9 plus any students who transfer into the cohort in grades 9–12 minus any students who are removed from the cohort because they transferred out, moved out of the country, or were died. The U.S. Department of Education first released common, more rigorous national figures in 2012. 

The gains translate to 1.7 million more graduates over the past decade and a 1.3-percent rate of increase per year on average. Gains among black and Hispanic students have propelled graduation rate increases since 2006, with a 15-point increase for Hispanic students and a 9-point increase for black students, according to GradNation’s report. Nationally, the rate among white students is 86 percent. It’s 73 percent among Hispanic students and 69 percent among black students. 

GradNation attributes the improvement in graduation rates to greater awareness of the issue, new accountability laws, the closure of underperforming schools, an explosion of "early-warning" systems that flag at-risk students and reforms that have offered both multiple chances to finish high school and different pathways.

But wide disparities remain within states, and large cities have a long way to go. Major metro areas—which have high concentrations of low-income students—have overall graduation rates in the 60s and 50s. There’s great variance between cities, though. Des Moines, Columbus and Houston have overall graduation rates of 79 percent, compared with 50 percent in Minneapolis and 51 percent in Atlanta. GradNation speakers emphasized those results aren’t easily explainable by poverty. Some 75 percent of students in Columbus are poor, for instance, about the same percentage as Detroit, which has a 65 percent graduation rate.

“We have to figure out what is our second act in our big cities,” said Bob Balfanz, co-director of John Hopkins University’s Every Graduates Center. 

Overall graduation rates in states range from 59 percent in Nevada to 93 percent in Vermont. A number of states are graduating even low-income students above the 80-percent mark, including Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Tennessee and Indiana. For other states, the graduation rate even among students who aren’t living in poverty stands below 80 percent. Those include Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tennessee in particular has been a leader in raising graduation rates. The state boosted graduation rate 17 percent from 2003 to 2010 and reached 87 percent in 2012. 

Duncan and others kept their praise measured, noting that large numbers of American students take remedial classes when they enter college. Rick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the gains are noteworthy, but it’s still clear that many students are finishing high school unprepared for what lies ahead. Different studies have shown 28 to 40 percent of first-time college students enroll in at least one remedial course, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and other reports suggest many U.S. employees lack the skills needed for the contemporary workplace.

“[Improved graduation rates] mean we’re getting you to show up, not be truant, and we’re keeping students in the educational process,” Hess said. “That’s a good thing, but we shouldn’t assume that showing up and getting a diploma means that you’re better educated.”

Public High School Graduation Rates

The following table lists 2011-2012 four-year adjusted cohort graduation rates for public high schools by student race and ethnicity. Please note that data was not reported for Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

State Total White Hispanic Black Asian / Pacific Islander
Alabama 75 81 69 67 85
Alaska 70 76 70 61 76
Arizona 76 84 70 71 84
Arkansas 84 87 78 78 84
California 78 86 73 66 90
Colorado 75 82 62 66 82
Connecticut 85 91 69 73 92
Delaware 80 83 74 74 93
District of Columbia 59 86 54 58 74
Florida 75 80 73 64 89
Georgia 70 78 60 62 82
Hawaii 82 79 76 76 84
Illinois 82 89 76 68 93
Indiana 86 89 80 73 89
Iowa 89 91 77 74 89
Kansas 85 88 77 75 86
Louisiana 72 78 70 65 85
Maine 85 86 80 72 89
Maryland 84 90 73 77 93
Massachusetts 85 90 66 73 89
Michigan 76 82 64 60 87
Minnesota 78 84 53 51 74
Mississippi 75 82 79 69 90
Missouri 86 89 80 73 90
Montana 84 87 79 79 92
Nebraska 88 91 78 74 83
Nevada 63 72 54 48 74
New Hampshire 86 87 74 76 86
New Jersey 86 93 77 75 95
New Mexico 70 77 68 69 84
New York 77 87 63 63 86
North Carolina 80 85 73 75 87
North Dakota 87 90 73 76 86
Ohio 81 86 68 61 90
Oregon 68 71 60 53 79
Pennsylvania 84 89 68 68 89
Rhode Island 77 82 67 67 79
South Carolina 75 78 69 71 85
South Dakota 83 89 67 67 84
Tennessee 87 91 80 79 91
Texas 88 93 84 84 94
Utah 80 83 66 64 78
Vermont 88 88 86 72 94
Virginia 83 88 73 75 90
Washington 77 80 67 67 82
West Virginia 79 80 79 74 94
Wisconsin 88 92 74 64 89
Wyoming 79 82 67 66 86

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data State Dropout and Graduation Rate Data For the full report from the U.S Department of Education, see here. For GradNation’s report, see here