Richard Murnane

Richard Murnane

The Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education & Society, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

U.S. High School Graduation Rates: Patterns and Explanations
Monday, May 14, 2012 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm



During the first 70 years of the 20th century, the high school graduation rate of teenagers in the U.S. rose from six percent to almost 80 percent.1 A result of this remarkable trend was that by the late 1960s, the high school graduation rate in the U.S. ranked first among OECD countries.2 The increase in the proportion of the labor force that had graduated from high school was an important part of the human capital creation that fueled economic growth and produced rising incomes during the 20th century. Over the next 30 years the high school graduation rate in the U.S. stagnated. Why did this happen? Why has the high school graduation rate begun to increase again during the last decade? This paper reviews existing literature and uses new data to shed light on the answers to these questions.

Specifically, the paper addresses the following four questions:

  1. Why is it so difficult to measure U.S. high school graduation rates?
  2. What are the patterns in U.S. high school graduation rates over the last 40 years?
  3. What are the explanations for these patterns?
  4. What are promising strategies for increasing the high school graduation?
Event contact: 

Taryn Garvin