Chapter 1
V. Confronting skeptics

As you work to build the will to solve the dropout crisis and meet the graduation challenge in your community, you may face skepticism and even resistance.

Dropout statistics

Dropouts are elusive. Very few announce themselves. Most simply stop coming to school, often after semesters of high absenteeism.

Many people believe that “almost everyone” in their community graduates. State figures traditionally have underestimated the number of dropouts, and overestimated the number of graduates. In addition, people often get confused by the fact that the dropout rate is not the inverse of the graduation rate. That is, if the dropout rate is 7 percent, the graduation rate isn’t necessarily 93 percent. This variation is the result of how rates are calculated. Dropout rates are snapshots taken at one moment in time, of all the dropouts in a district or school in a range of grade levels, usually grades 7 to 12 or grades 9 to 12. Graduation rates follow a group of students from grade 9 to grade 12 through diplomas.

Also, in the past graduation rates have been figured differently from state to state. Only recently have they become standardized. The U.S. Department of Education is now requiring every school to use the same formula for determining its graduation rate – this is known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate or ACGR. Although all schools were to begin using this measure with the Class of 2011, all did not do so. There are, however, 47 states and the District of Columbia using the new cohort rate. Unless you are in Idaho, Kentucky, or Oklahoma, you can find state and district statistics reflecting the new, more uniform rate. Despite these limitations, facts can be a powerful tool for outlining the graduation challenges in your community. By establishing the baseline, you can start to show why there’s a need to increase graduation rates – and then show how your efforts are making a difference.

The value of a high school diploma

Some in your community may still believe that a high school diploma is not necessary. Some believe that students who drop out can still make their way in the world just fine.

Community members may be able to point to a success story or two, to someone in their family, a notable person in the community or nation, or themselves as examples of people who did not earn a high school diploma but went on to lead a productive and successful life.

There will always be talented, hard-working people who find success after dropping out. But in the 21st century, they will be few and far between. In 2012, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 24 percent – almost six times the rate for people with college degrees.1 Already, 60 percent of American jobs require post-secondary education.2 The odds that a high school dropout will strike it rich are slim and even making it into the middle class is becoming more and more difficult.

A high school diploma has more than financial benefits for the graduate. Studies show that high school graduates are healthier, live longer, and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior or need social services than dropouts. So, high school graduates are community assets on many levels.

One specific argument you may face is that passing GED (General Educational Development) tests is equivalent to a regular high school diploma and substitutes for a high school education. One study estimates that close to half of all dropouts eventually receive a GED. But, a GED is not equivalent to a high school diploma. People with GEDs generally earn significantly more than high school dropouts but significantly less than high school graduates and have a much more difficult time getting into and completing college. Only 10 percent of GED holders earns a college degree, compared to 27 percent of high school graduates.3

A GED is better than no diploma, but for today’s students and for our communities, staying in school is the best choice by far.

A final type of skepticism you might face is the belief that improving graduation rates are the result of lowered standards, and that in an era in which the majority of the jobs require some post-secondary schooling or training a high school diploma is essentially worthless. The truth is that high school graduation rates have been rising at a time when it has gotten harder to earn a diploma. Most states in the past decade have increased graduation requirements and the majority of students graduate in states that require them to pass exit or end-of-course exams to receive high school diplomas. It is true that your community campaign to meet the graduation challenge should be about more than increasing the high school graduation rate. It should also build stronger pathways from high school to post-secondary schooling and training. But the evidence presented earlier is clear: It is much better for a student’s life outcomes and the life of the community for students to receive high school diplomas than drop out or get a GED, even if they do not immediately go on to further schooling or training.


  1. http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/CollegeAdvantage.FullReport.081512.pdf  

  2. http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/HelpWanted.ExecutiveSummary.pdf  

  3. The GED is currently being strengthened. http://www.gedtestingservice.com/educators/new-assessment  

Deeper Look

For a closer look at dropout statistics and the value of a diploma, and graduation rates, see:

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