Harvard University economist Richard Murnane’s examination of data finds the country’s high-school graduation rate, which has been flat for about three decades, is improving. In 2000, estimates show 77.6% of people between ages 20 and 24 had high-school diplomas — less than the 83.7% he estimates earned a diploma in 2010. Murnane’s research shows that the uptick in achievement was particularly sharp among African-American and Latino students, David Wessel writes in this blog post.

Even with the recent rise in the graduation rate, about one in five American men between 20 and 24 doesn’t have a conventional high school diploma, a significant barrier to getting a decent-paying job or going on to college. About one in seven women lack a diploma.

President Barack Obama has described what he calls “the dropout crisis” as “a problem we can’t afford to accept or ignore.” Mr. Murnane’s data suggests that, for reasons he can’t fully explain, there are encouraging signs of a turnaround.

During the first 70 years of the 20th century, the high school graduation rate of U.S. teenagers rose from about 6% to about 80%, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has calculated. This increase in the cadre of workers’ education propelled U.S. economic growth for decades, she has argued.

But between 1970 and 2000, the high-school graduation rate in the U.S. stagnated. By 2000, the U.S. — which once had more of its young people finishing high school than any other developed country — was 13th in the rankings by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For that reason, among others, it’s no longer true that almost every generation of Americans has substantially more education than that of its parents.

Using various data sources, Mr. Murnane, who teaches at Harvard’s education school, estimates that 77.6% of Americans between 20 and 24 in 2000 had high school diplomas.

Among those born 10 years later — that is, those who were between 20 and 24 in 2010 — 83.7% had diplomas.

The improvement was particularly sharp among blacks and Hispanics. For instance, in 2000, 61.2% of black men between 20 and 24 had finished high school; in 2010, 72.0% of black men in that age bracket had.

Measuring high-school graduation rates is trickier than it sounds. People tend to over-report their years of school on surveys. Administrative data is muddled by students who move between schools or are listed as “transfer” instead of dropouts, by immigrants who arrive after ninth grade and by inconsistencies in the way school districts keep tallies. The new Murnane estimates rely on a variety of government surveys and data from public school students in Massachusetts.


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