A Rising Tide of Graduation Rates

03/17/2015 01:57 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

Recent research shows there is a clear path out of poverty. Only 2 percent of those who graduate high school, wait to have children until married, and get a full-time job by the age of 21 live in poverty, while roughly 75 percent who do none of these things do.

On the first stepping-stone toward social mobility -- getting a high school diploma -- the nation continues to make progress, while serious challenges remain in some states and communities.

For decades, high school graduation rates seemed to be immovable: reaching about 70 percent nationally in the 1970s through the early part of this century. In the 1990s, a suite of governors, many from the high poverty states of the south with the lowest graduation rates, made education reform a top priority as an economic imperative.

The early 2000s ushered in an era of awareness of America's dropout epidemic and the small percentage of "dropout factory" high schools where half the nation's students were leaving school too early. A first-ever national sample of high school dropouts showed that most could have graduated, especially with higher expectations, courses that were relevant to career, and caring adults who could help students navigate school and life challenges. With focus, the dropout problem could be addressed, anywhere.

All 50 governors agreed to collect and report new data that tracked the progress of every student in public schools. Federal law required, for the first time, schools, districts and states to keep more students on pace to graduate. These efforts focused schools and communities on the pressing problem, leading to education reforms, student supports, and data with accountability working together in many areas of the country.

Businesses, through programs like AT&T Aspire, focused resources on the issue, including funding, employee volunteering, and technologies to drive innovative solutions.

America's Promise Alliance, co-founded by Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.) and Alma Powell and led by John Gomperts, mobilized community-based organizations across America to focus on boosting graduation rates and to target their efforts to the lowest-performing schools.

The national graduation rate has hit an all-time high of over 81 percent, up more than ten percentage points over the last dozen years. After three successive U.S. Presidents set a national graduation rate goal of 90 percent and missed their deadlines, America is on pace for the third year in a row to meet this goal by the Class of 2020. Nearly two million more students have graduated rather than dropping out over the last decade and another 2 million more will graduate in the coming decade as the nation keeps pace.

Some states like California and Texas, with more than 13 and 9 percent of all students in the nation, respectively, continue to make impressive gains, while many states that are closest to reaching 90 percent are stalling, indicating the challenge that remains is more daunting.

Hispanic and African American students have continued to drive gains in graduation rates, even though their rates still lag behind the national average.

In an era where most jobs require a college degree, some wonder why a high school diploma even matters. In addition to a being the critical pathway to college, graduating from high school means a lifetime of increased earnings, better health, decreased reliance on government assistance and crime, and higher levels of volunteering and other forms of civic engagement, compared to those who drop out.

Serious graduation gaps remain -- between students of different races, ethnicities, income-levels and special needs. Some communities and schools remain unreformed or unfocused on the issue and, as a result, are still losing far too many students. But America has finally awakened to its dropout challenge with evidence-based reforms and supports, and those efforts are bearing fruit for millions of our young people.

John Bridgeland, former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council & CEO of Civic Enterprises, and Robert Balfanz, Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, are co-authors of an Executive Brief on high school graduation rates and trends found here.