Ensuring that students graduate from high school on time (i.e., within 4 years) and are ready for college or the labor market has been an important goal of high school education in the United States for decades. Increasingly, skills learned in high school do not guarantee access to jobs that support families, because most of the fastest-growing, well-paying jobs in today’s labor market require at least some postsecondary education (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2010). About a quarter of U.S. public school students do not graduate from high school with a regular diploma within the expected period of 4 years (Chapman et al. 2011). Among those who do graduate from high school, many go to college or combine school with work, but some enter the labor market without pursuing additional education, at least in the short term (Ingels et al. 2012).
This section updates several indicators related to U.S. students’ transitions from high school to college, including on-time high school graduation rates, long-term trends in immediate college enrollment after high school, the high school graduation and postsecondary entry rates of U.S. students relative to those of students in other countries, and remediation rates among students entering postsecondary institutions across the United States. Together, these indicators present a broad picture of the transition of U.S. students from high school to postsecondary education, the topic of chapter 2.
High school completion in the United States can be defined and measured in a variety of ways (Seastrom et al. 2006). Based on a relatively inclusive definition—receiving a regular high school diploma or earning an equivalency credential, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate—about 83% of the U.S. population ages 18–24 had completed a high school education in 2009 (Snyder and Dillow 2012).
Beginning with the 2011–12 school year, the U.S. Department of Education required all states to use a more restricted definition, emphasizing on-time graduation and considering only recipients of diplomas (Curran and Reyna 2010; Chapman et al. 2011). Under this definition, the high school graduation rate is calculated as the percentage of students in a freshman class who graduate with a regular diploma 4 years later (Seastrom et al. 2006). This rate requires student-level data over time. Because not all states had these longitudinal data prior to the 2011–12 school year, the U.S. Department of Education currently uses one of the best estimates—the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR)—to measure on-time high school graduation rates (Seastrom et al. 2006). The AFGR calculation divides the aggregate count of the number of diplomas in a particular year by the estimated size of the incoming freshman class 4 years earlier. Starting with the 2011–12 school year, the U.S. Department of Education required all states to use a measure that is based on student-level data over time in order to increase the accuracy of on-time graduation rates (U.S. Department of Education 2012b). To facilitate state-by-state comparisons, the governors of all 50 states agreed to work toward implementing this method to tabulate statistics for their public high schools (NGA 2005).
The U.S. on-time graduation rate among public high school students has increased steadily since 2006 (appendix table
Sex differences in on-time graduation rates persisted over time (appendix table
Each year, OECD estimates upper secondary graduation rates for its member countries and selected nonmember countries by dividing the number of graduates in a country by the number of people at the typical graduation age (OECD 2012). These estimates enable a broad comparison among nations and illuminate the U.S. standing internationally. U.S. graduation rates are below those of many OECD countries. Of the 26 OECD nations for which graduation rate data were available in 2010, the United States ranked 22nd, with an average graduation rate of 77% compared with the OECD average of 84% (appendix table
The relative standing of U.S. high school graduation rates has not improved during recent years. Among the 21 OECD countries for which graduation rate data were available in 2006, 2008, and 2010, the United States ranked 16th in both 2006 and 2008 and 17th in 2010 (OECD 2008, 2010, 2012).
Upon completing high school, students make critical choices about the next stage of their lives. Today, a majority of U.S. high school students expect to attend college at some point, and many do so immediately after high school graduation. In 2010, 93% of high school seniors expected to attend a postsecondary institution, with 60% having definite plans to graduate from a 4-year college program and 24% having definite plans to attend graduate or professional school after college (Aud et al. 2012). In 2011, 68% of students enrolled in a postsecondary institution immediately after they graduated from high school (i.e., by the October following high school completion), with 27% enrolling in 2-year colleges and 41% enrolling in 4-year institutions (figure
The immediate college enrollment rate increased from 51% in 1975 to 68% in 2011, though the upward trend appeared to level off from 2009 to 2011 (figure
Large gaps persisted among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. In each year between 1975 and 2011, the immediate college enrollment rates were lower among students from low-income families than among students from middle- and high-income families (appendix table
Participation in education beyond secondary schooling has been rising in many countries (Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley 2009; OECD 2012). One measure of such participation is the OECD-developed first-time entry rate into a university-level education program (referred to as a “tertiary-type A” program by OECD). This measure, though not perfect, provides a broad comparison of postsecondary enrollment rates in the United States and those in other OECD countries.
According to OECD data, the percentage of U.S. young adults enrolling in university-level education for the first time was 74% in 2010, above the OECD average of 62% (figure
Despite the increasing numbers of U.S. students entering college, many are unprepared for college-level work and need remedial help to address their skill deficiencies (Kurlaender and Howell 2012). Nationally, half of first-time postsecondary students took some type of remedial course after they entered college, and 42% took one or more remedial math courses (table