College Dropouts Now Exceed High School Dropouts. What Are We Going to Do About It?

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

April 25, 2018

Guest Post by Chad Aldeman

Three years ago, I wrote about an eye-opening statistic: There are more American adults who have dropped out of college than who have dropped out of high school. After updating the data, the long-term trends look even more compelling.

The graph below shows what I found. The blue line tracks the number of American adults over age 25 with less than a high school diploma. As a country, we’ve done a remarkable job improving high school completion rates. A century ago, only about one-in-six Americans had completed a high school degree, but today nearly 9-out-of-10 adults have a high school diploma or a GED. As older generations with lower educational attainment rates are gradually replaced by new generations with higher attainment, the blue line in the graph will continue to fall.

Today, many more Americans attend some form of college, and too many of them try and fail to complete any degree or credential. The red line in the graph counts all of those people. It represents all Americans over age 25 who identify their highest educational attainment as “some college, no degree,” and it does not include anyone who is enrolled and still seeking a degree.

The two lines intersected in the mid-2000s, and the long-term trend is clear: As a society, we now have to worry more about college dropouts than we do high school dropouts. In pure, raw numbers, there are 30.1 million Americans who can be classified as college dropouts, versus 24.6 million Americans with less than a high school diploma.


When I last wrote about this chart, I pointed out that a number of factors—including economic and policy incentives—contributed to these changes. But I didn’t spend much time looking forward to the implications for the education sector. I’ll now offer a few:

  1. We’ve captured the low-hanging fruit in K-12. We’re doing a pretty good job of getting kids through the K-12 system. Dropout rates continue to fall, and graduation rates continue to climb. All of this is to the good, and it helps individual students and society writ large to have more education. We still have large gaps, but we’re at least on a positive trajectory in terms of completion rates, and the remaining challenges are narrower in scope than what we faced a generation ago.

But are we doing enough to make sure students are learning along the way? Achievement scores at the high school level haven’t budged much overall (although they are up significantly for black and Hispanic students), but we know that achievement and accomplishment matter much more than a simple count of years of schooling. It’s easier to keep kids in school than to make sure they learn something, but we’ve tended to focus too heavily on the former.

  1. The education reform community, such as it is, has mainly ignored higher education. We have shamefully low rates of student progression through higher education but hardly any external pressure. At the national level, there are a plethora of groups—like Education Reform Now Advocacy, CAP, AEI, New America, EdTrust, IHEP, Third Way, Young Invincibles, etc.—working on these issues, but where are the state-level policy advocates? Where is the PIE-Net equivalent for higher education? Where is the civil rights push? A meaningful commitment to diversity in higher education does not end at the admissions office door.

For too long, higher education policy has been driven by the interests of colleges and universities, but we need a more concerted effort to apply external pressure as well. Similarly, too much of higher education policy focuses on federal financial aid, while state budgets are being cut, tuition continues to rise, and colleges face almost no accountability for student outcomes.

  1. The consequences of our collective myopia are enormous. By focusing solely on K-12 reform, we have overlooked the real problems in our education system. For example, we’ve enacted a number of reforms over the last 10 years in the name of “college- and career-readiness,” but we failed to make the link to higher education and we forgot that colleges determine which students are college ready. Colleges and universities never signed on to the Common Core movement in any meaningful way, and we’ve done almost nothing on the college remediation problem. Similarly, we’ve revamped high school accountability systems to include indicators like Advanced Placement tests and industry certifications, but only three states plan to hold schools accountable for actual measures of student success like college-going and remediation rates, and no state is using employment rates or earnings. Our myopia has led us to pursue buzzwords and K-12-specific solutions to problems that are much broader.

We’ve had some success in boosting low-level basic skills and getting more students through K-12 education, but we need a different set of policy solutions, and a broader perspective, if we’re going to carry that progress through to higher-level skills and higher college completion rates. Finding those answers will matter both to the individuals in our education systems today and to our broader society going forward.