04/13/2014 02:06 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2014

High School Dropout Rates: A Crisis?

It seems that the phrase "high school dropout" is often accompanied with the word "crisis." Depending who you ask, kids everywhere are giving up on education before they obtain a diploma and the situation has never been worse.

But is it really that bad? Is the state of the high school dropout rate in the U.S. deserving of the "crisis" label?

This week, I'm going to delve into the statistics and facts of high school dropout rates in the U.S., where the current generation stands historically, what is driving contemporary numbers, who is at the highest risk for dropping out and ultimately what can be done to increase the high school graduation rate.

So let's get started by taking a closer look at where the dropout rate stands today. Check back throughout the week for the second and third installments of the series.

What is the high school dropout rate in the U.S.?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national dropout rate was 7 percent in 2011. The number is calculated by taking the number of 16 to 24 year olds that are not enrolled in school and do not have a diploma, or a general educational development (G.E.D.) certificate. In 1990, that number was 12 percent so based on that criteria, the dropout rate has dropped in the past two decades. In fact, dropout numbers have been on the decline since 1970 when it was 15 percent. Perhaps a more interesting stat is that the percentage of 16 to 24-year-old dropouts who were in employed in 1970 is the same as 2011 - 49.8 percent. As dropout rates have declined, the importance of finishing high school has increased in America. One big problem with the NCES dropout calculations are that they imply that a high school diploma and G.E.D. are equal when it comes to opportunities for earners. In reality, studies have found that G.E.D. holders earn about the same amount as dropouts long term.

Who is dropping out?

Since the government started tracking the dropout rates specifically for Hispanic students in 1972, this group has consistently had the highest percentages. In 1972, over one-third of all Hispanic students dropped out of high school. Today that number is down to 13.6 percent, but the group still leads all races and ethnicities when it comes to young people out of school with no diploma or G.E.D. Black students dropped out at a rate of 29 percent in 1967 (the first year the group was tracked) and that number is down to 7 percent (the same as the national average) today. White students have always held on to the lowest percentage of the dropout pie chart, even when their numbers represented a larger majority of total student populations. In 1967, 15 percent of white students dropped out of high school; today, just 5 percent do.

When it comes to gender, there has not been much differentiation when it comes to dropout percentages in over 40 years. There have been four years since 1972 when the rate for young men dropouts was noticeably higher than young women: 1974, 1976, 1978 and 2000. As far as economic backgrounds, lower-income students have always been at a high school graduation disadvantage. In 2009, students from families in low-income brackets ran a risk of dropping out that was five times higher than high-income peers. Still, the future is not completely bleak for kids from disadvantaged economic environments; in 1975, low-income students dropped out at a rate of 16 percent but that number now sits comfortably under 10 percent.

Where are drop-out numbers highest?

According to the latest set of national statistics, released in 2012, high school graduation rates were the lowest in the District of Columbia (59 percent), Nevada (62 percent), New Mexico (63 percent), Georgia (67 percent) and Oregon and Alaska (both with 68 percent). By contrast, the states with the highest graduation rates were Iowa (88 percent), Vermont and Wisconsin (87 percent), and Indiana, Nebraska and New Hampshire (86 percent). The type of area a student lives also impacts graduation rates. The average high school grad rate in the largest 50 U.S. cities is just 53 percent, compared with 71 percent in suburban America.

Based on these numbers, it may seem that the high school dropout problem has seen significant improvement in a few, short decades. While that may be true, the numbers are still too high to stomach, especially with all of the alternative options high school students now have to finish their diplomas outside traditional classroom settings. At this juncture in U.S. K-12 progress, the dropout rate should be barely worth mentioning.

What do you think? Should the current dropout rate be celebrated or shunned?