For the first time ever, the nationwide high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent, according to a new report from GradNation. That's good news, with one glaring caveat: in most states, the gap between low-income students and everyone else remains in double digits. The average gap between poor and non-poor students was 15.6 percentage points – Minnesota had the largest gap of 28 percent – and 45 states had a double-digit gap.

The nationwide graduation rate has been on a fairly steady rise since 2006, increasing 8 percentage points by 2012 (the last year of data included in the report). The prevalence and impact of so-called "drop out factories" (defined as schools with less than a 60 percent graduation rate) is on the decline, with a 47 percent drop in enrolled students at these low-performing schools over the past 10 years. The report notes that "these increases have come as standards to graduate have gotten tougher," attempting to highlight the impressive nature of that 80 percent figure. 

But the report also makes another thing clear: poor students still lag far behind their peers.


In every state that reported statistics, low-income students graduate at a lower rate than their non-low-income peers. The gap varies widely — while Minnesota's is 28 percent, fellow Midwestern state Indiana had a mere 1 percent gap. The low-income graduation rate hit 80 percent or higher in only six states, and nine had rates of 65 percent or lower. So in 44 states, low-income students graduate at or below the national average. Meanwhile, 14 states reported graduation rates of 90 percent or higher for non-low-income students. 

Lower high school graduation rates means these low-income students – who, on the national average, make up 45 percent of the student body – are likely to remain low-income. The difference in yearly salaries between high school grads and non-grads is thousands of dollars. It's a vicious cycle: students from households with lower incomes than their peers graduate at lower rates and in turn earn lower salaries themselves. 

In addition to low-income students, African American and Hispanic students graduate at substantially lower rates than their white peers and the national average, and are far more likely to attend a "drop out factory."


So yes, the 80 percent mark and its upward trend is encouraging, but key student groups remain woefully underserved by their schools. The GradNation report stresses this, and recognizes that these demographics need to be specifically targeted for gains if the nationwide average is going to hit 90 percent by 2020. 

Photo by michaeljung via Shutterstock.