Transition to Higher Education

One of the most important education goals in the United States is to educate every student to graduate from high school ready for college and a career (Achieve Inc. 2016; NCEE 2013; Pellegrino and Hilton 2012). Over the past decades, U.S. high school graduation rates have been rising steadily, reaching 83% in 2015 (McFarland, Stark, and Cui 2016). Although high school completion represents a major milestone for adolescents, most of today’s fastest-growing, well-paying jobs require at least some postsecondary education (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2010; Hout 2012). Young people who do not pursue education beyond high school face fewer job opportunities, lower earnings, and a greater likelihood of being unemployed and underemployed than their college-educated peers (Baum, Ma, and Payea 2013; Pew Research Center 2014).

Within this context, this section focuses on indicators related to U.S. students’ transitions from high school to postsecondary education. It presents national data on on-time high school graduation rates, trends in immediate college enrollment after high school, choice of STEM majors at the postsecondary level, and academic preparation for college. This section also examines U.S. students’ high school graduation rates relative to those of their peers in other countries. Together, these indicators present a broad picture of the transition of U.S. students from high school to postsecondary education. (Higher education in S&E is the topic of Chapter 2.)

Completion of High School

Estimates of U.S. high school completion rates vary, depending on the definitions, data sources, and calculation methods (Heckman and LaFontaine 2007; Seastrom et al. 2006). Based on a relatively inclusive definition—receiving a regular high school diploma or earning an equivalency credential, such as a GED certificate—about 92% of the U.S. population ages 18–24 in 2013 had completed a high school education (McFarland, Stark, and Cui 2016). This is largely consistent with the experience of a nationally representative cohort of 2002 high school sophomores; 96% of the cohort members had earned a high school diploma or an equivalency credential by 2012 (Lauff and Ingels 2014).

Beginning with the 2010–11 school year, the Department of Education required all states to use a more restrictive definition of high school graduation, emphasizing on-time completion and considering only recipients of regular high school diplomas (Chapman et al. 2011). Using this definition, NCES releases two annual measures of high school completion: the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) and the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR). Both measures provide the percentage of public school students who attain a regular high school diploma within 4 years of starting ninth grade, but the ACGR is the more accurate measure because it relies on longitudinal data that track each student over time (McFarland, Stark, and Cui 2016). The U.S. high school graduation rates discussed below are ACGRs.

On-Time Graduation Rates from 2011 to 2015

The on-time graduation rate among U.S. public high school students has increased steadily since 2011 (Table 1-23). In 2011, 79% of public high school students graduated on time with a regular diploma; by 2015, the percentage had climbed to 83%.

Socioeconomic status. In addition to reporting graduation rates by race or ethnicity to the federal government, states also report rates by students who are economically disadvantaged. Although on-time graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students have improved by 6 percentage points since 2011, these students continue to graduate at lower rates than the general population (76% versus 83%).

Race or ethnicity. Black students made the largest gain during this period, an improvement of 8 percentage points, from 67% in 2011 to 75% in 2015. Hispanic students made a gain of 7 percentage points, from 71% in 2011 to 78% in 2015, as did American Indian or Alaska Native students, from 65% in 2011 to 72% in 2015. White students gained 4 percentage points, and Asian or Pacific Islander students gained 3 percentage points during this period. Despite this improvement, substantial differences among racial and ethnic groups persisted: in 2015, the on-time high school graduation rates for Asian or Pacific Islander and white students were 90% and 88%, respectively; and both rates surpassed those of black, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native students (72%–78%) by at least 16 percentage points.

On-time graduation rates of U.S. public high school students, by student characteristics: 2011−15

High School Graduation Rates in the United States and Other OECD Nations

The OECD estimates upper secondary graduation rates for its members and selected nonmember countries by dividing the number of graduates in a country in a specific year by the number of people at the typical graduation age (OECD 2016). These estimates enable a broad, albeit imperfect, comparison between the United States and other countries. Based on 2014 data, U.S. graduation rates are lower than those of many OECD countries. Among the 25 OECD nations with available data on graduation rates in 2014, the United States ranked 19th, with a graduation rate of 82%, compared with the OECD average of 85% (Table 1-24). The top-ranked countries, listed in order of rank, are Finland, Japan, New Zealand, Netherlands, South Korea, Denmark, Italy, Germany, and Slovenia—all of which had graduation rates of 90% or higher.

Furthermore, the relative standing of U.S. high school graduation rates has stayed largely the same from 2008 to 2014. Among the 18 OECD countries for which graduation rate data were available in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014, the United States ranked 13th in 2008, 14th in 2010 and 2012, and 12th in 2014 (Table 1-25).

High school graduation rates, by OECD country: 2014

Relative standing of U.S. high school graduation rates among OECD countries: 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014

Enrollment in Postsecondary Education

After completing high school, some students immediately enter the workforce, join the military, or start families, but the majority go directly into postsecondary education (Ingels et al. 2012). Of the 3 million students who completed high school or a GED in 2015, some 2.1 million (69%) enrolled in a 2- or 4-year college the following fall (Kena et al. 2016). This rate, known as the immediate college enrollment rate, is defined as the annual percentage of high school completers aged 16 to 24, including GED recipients, who enroll in 2- or 4-year colleges by the October after high school completion.

Between 1975 and 2015, the percentage of high school graduates making an immediate transition to college increased from 51% to 69% (Figure 1-8). In each year, more students enrolled in 4-year institutions than in 2-year institutions. Immediate enrollment rates between 1975 and 2015 increased from 33% to 44% for 4-year institutions and from 18% to 25% for 2-year institutions.

Immediate college enrollment rates among high school graduates, by institution type: 1975–2015


The figure includes students ages 16 to 24 who completed high school in each survey year. Immediate college enrollment rates are defined as rates of high school graduates enrolled in college in October after completing high school. Before 1992, high school graduates referred to those who had completed 12 years of schooling. As of 1992, high school graduates are those who have received a high school diploma or equivalency certificate. Detail may not sum to total due to rounding.


The Condition of Education, tables 302.10, 302.20, 302.30,, accessed 3 May 2017. See Appendix Table 1-27.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2018

Socioeconomic status. Enrollment gaps, however, persisted among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds (Appendix Table 1-27): in 2015, the immediate college enrollment rate of students from low-income families was lower than the rate of those from high-income families (69% versus 83%).

Race or ethnicity. Since 1975, the immediate college enrollment rate has increased from 49% to 70% for white students, 45% to 63% for black students, and 53% to 67% for Hispanic students. Asians or Pacific Islanders enrolled at consistently higher rates than all other groups since 2003, when data on Asian and Pacific Islander students were first available.

Sex. The immediate college enrollment rate in 2015 was higher for female students (73%) than for male students (66%).

Other characteristics. Enrollment rates also varied widely with parental education, ranging in 2015 from 56% for students whose parents had less than a high school education to 82% for students whose parents had a bachelor’s or higher degree.

Preparation for College

Although the majority of U.S. students attend college after high school, high rates of remedial coursetaking and low rates of college completion indicate that many of them are not well prepared during their high school years for college (Chen 2016). Research indicates that many college students arrive on campus lacking the necessary academic skills to perform at the college level. Postsecondary institutions address this problem by offering remedial courses designed to strengthen students’ basic skills. Students must pass these remedial courses before they can begin taking credit-bearing courses that count toward their degree. In 2011−12, about 29% of students at public 4-year institutions and 41% at public 2-year institutions reported having ever taken remedial courses (Skomsvold 2014).

In 2016, Achieve Inc., an independent, nonprofit education reform organization, conducted the first state-by-state analysis of student performance on college- and career-ready measures (including performance on assessments, completion of a rigorous course of study, and earning college credit while in high school) and determined that “too few high school graduates are prepared to succeed in postsecondary education” (Achieve Inc. 2016: 1). Student scores on such assessments as NAEP and ACT also suggest that a majority of high school students are not academically prepared for college-level mathematics and science coursework (see sidebar Measuring College Readiness in Mathematics and Science).

Measuring College Readiness in Mathematics and Science

High School Completers Planning to Pursue a STEM Major in College

With the goals of maintaining global competitiveness and enhancing capacity for innovation, U.S. policymakers have called for increasing the number and diversity of students pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields. Data from HSLS:09 gave insight into the percentage of high school students planning to major in STEM fields in college. Among respondents who reported plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree, 32% indicated plans to pursue a STEM major (Appendix Table 1-28). Asian students were the most likely to identify a STEM major, with 53% of bachelor’s degree program respondents identifying a STEM major, compared with 32% of white students, 28% of Hispanic students, and 23% of black students. A higher percentage of male (41%) than female (24%) bachelor’s degree program respondents identified a STEM major.