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PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION AND COLLEGE-READINESS RATES: New Report Finds 71 Percent National Graduation Rate, 34 Percent College-Readiness Rate

"Unfortunately, even in this era of increased public school accountability and transparency, officially reported graduation rates are often misleading."

Only 71 percent of the Class of 2002 graduated with a regular diploma, according to a new report from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Among minorities, graduation rates were even more grim, with only 56 percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students earning high school diplomas, compared to 78 percent of white students. The report, Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002, also found that only 34 percent of students who entered ninth grade in public schools left school with both a regular diploma and the “abilities and qualifications required to even apply to a four-year college.”

The report takes issue with the way graduation rates are calculated by government agencies, referring to them as “consistently among the least plausible,” at both the national and state levels. “Unfortunately, even in this era of increased public school accountability and transparency, officially reported graduation rates are often misleading,” the report reads. “Some states’ official graduation rates are so improbably high that they would be laughable if the issue were not so serious.”

To calculate graduation rates, the report “estimates the number of students who enter a ninth-grade class, makes some adjustments for changes in the population, and then divides the resulting number into the number of students who actually graduated with a regular diploma.” The formula used enrollment data provided by the U.S. Department of Education in its Common Core of Data. As the report’s authors explain, enrollment data act as a more reasonable foundation on which to base a calculation of graduation rates because a large portion of state and federal funds that a school receives is directly related to the size of its enrollment. Schools, therefore, have a strong motivation to accurately count all students who walk through their doors. Also, because of the linkage between school spending and enrollments, state officials have an incentive to check enrollment counts for accuracy.

Based on the data and formula described above, the following states had the highest and lowest high school graduation rates for the Class of 2002:

New Jersey 89% South Carolina 53%
Iowa 85% Georgia 56%
Wisconsin 85% Tennessee 57%
North Dakota 85% Alabama 58%
Minnesota 84% Alaska 59%
Nebraska 83% Florida 59%


What is College Readiness?

To be considered “college ready,” students must cross three hurdles. First, they must graduate with a regular diploma (as opposed to a GED or other form of certification). Second, students must have met the academic requirements of minimally selective four-year colleges-four years of English, three years of math, and two years each of natural science, social science, and foreign language. Third, a student must be basically literate-in this case, he or she must score at the basic level or above on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test.

Nationwide, only 34 percent of all students of the Class of 2002 cleared all three hurdles and were considered college ready. White students were slightly better prepared for college (40 percent), while only 23 percent of African Americans and 20 percent of Hispanic students graduated college ready.

In many states, college-readiness rates were half the reported high school graduation rates. According to the report, this disparity occurs because the minimum standards for earning a high school diploma are often lower than those required to enter even a “minimally selective four-year college.”

The following states posted the highest and lowest college-readiness rates in 2002:

New Jersey 45% Alaska 27%
Pennsylvania 41% Indiana 28%
West Virginia 41% Illinois 29%
Arkansas 40% South Carolina 29%
New Hampshire 40% Four states tied with 30%
Virginia 40%


When compared to the 1991 national graduation rate of 72 percent and college-readiness rate of 25 percent, the report concluded that while schools are graduating about the same percentage of students as before, more of the students who graduate leave high school with the qualifications necessary to attend college. It attributes higher college-readiness rates to “increased standards and accountability programs over the last decade,” which have required students to take more rigorous coursework.

The complete report is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.