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The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels


  • James J. Heckman

    (University of Chicago, University College Dublin, and American Bar Foundation)

  • Paul A. LaFontaine

    (American Bar Foundation)


This paper applies a unified methodology to multiple data sets to estimate both the levels and trends in U.S. high school graduation rates. We establish that (a) the true rate is substantially lower than widely used measures, (b) it peaked in the early 1970s, © majority-minority differentials are substantial and have not converged for 35 years, (d) lower post-1970 rates are not solely due to increasing immigrant and minority populations, (e) our findings explain part of the slowdown in college attendance and rising college wage premiums, and (f) widening graduation differentials by gender help explain increasing male-female college attendance gaps. © 2010 The President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Suggested Citation

  • James J. Heckman & Paul A. LaFontaine, 2010. "The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 92(2), pages 244-262, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:tpr:restat:v:92:y:2010:i:2:p:244-262

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz & Ilyana Kuziemko, 2006. "The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 20(4), pages 133-156, Fall.
    2. James J. Heckman & Paul A. LaFontaine, 2006. "Bias-Corrected Estimates of GED Returns," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(3), pages 661-700, July.
    3. Donald Kenkel & Dean Lillard & Alan Mathios, 2006. "The Roles of High School Completion and GED Receipt in Smoking and Obesity," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(3), pages 635-660, July.
    4. Lance Lochner & Enrico Moretti, 2004. "The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(1), pages 155-189, March.
    5. David H. Autor & Lawrence F. Katz & Melissa S. Kearney, 2005. "Rising Wage Inequality: The Role of Composition and Prices," NBER Working Papers 11628, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Bruce Western & Becky Pettit, 2000. "Incarceration and Racial Inequality in Men's Employment," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 54(1), pages 3-16, October.
    7. Yona Rubinstein & James J. Heckman, 2001. "The Importance of Noncognitive Skills: Lessons from the GED Testing Program," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(2), pages 145-149, May.
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    JEL classification:

    • I21 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Analysis of Education


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