IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Dropout rates: Measuring high school non-completion

By Lauren Musu-Gillette

High school dropouts face increasingly high rates of unemployment and low annual earnings. Therefore, it is important to have an accurate representation of the number of high school dropouts in the U.S.


Median annual earnings of full-time year-round wage and salary workers ages 25-34, by educational attainment: 2013

Figure. Median annual earnings of full-time year-round workers ages 25-34, by educational attainment: 2013

1 Total represents median annual earnings of all full-time year-round wage and salary workers ages 25–34.
2 Total represents median annual earnings of young adults with a bachelor's degree or higher.
NOTE: Full-time year-round workers are those who worked 35 or more hours per week for 50 or more weeks per year.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 502.30.


There are several different ways to measure the number and percentage of high school dropouts. The status dropout rate measures the percentage of individuals who are not in school and have not earned a high school diploma or alternative credential. The Condition of Education uses the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) to provide an annual update on the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds who meet these criteria.

Another way of looking at high school non-completion is to examine the event dropout rate. This rate estimates the percentage of high school students who left high school between the beginning of one school year and the beginning of the next without earning a high school diploma or alternative credential. While the definition of dropout is similar in both these measures, the populations are different. The event dropout rate only includes students who left high school over the course of a given year whereas the status dropout rate can include those who dropped out over many years and who may not have attended high school at all. The event dropout rate can be calculated from the CPS or from data reported by state education agencies to NCES through the CCD collection.

As an example of how these rates can differ, the CCD event dropout rate from October 2011 to October 2012 was 3.4 percent, while the 2012 CPS status dropout rate was 6.6 percent for 16- to 24-year-olds. The broader age range and related time period captured in the status dropout rate captures a larger percentage of high school non-completers. Both rates are important because they offer different types of information about high school dropouts. However, they can also offer complementary information. For example, both the event dropout rate and the status dropout rate have declined since the 90s.

See Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States for more information on current dropout statistics.