How U.S. graduation rates compare with the rest of the world
November 3rd, 2011
11:59 PM ET

How U.S. graduation rates compare with the rest of the world


Twenty-five percent of Americans that start high school do not graduate. Entering the workforce without a high school diploma means an unemployment rate three-and-a-half times the rate of those with a college degree. And for those who do find full-time work, they on average earn less than half of what a college graduate makes each year.


Thirty percent of high school graduates do not go on to college right after graduation. In the workforce, a high school graduate earns on average more than someone without a diploma, but still only 60 percent of what a college graduate makes each year.


Forty-three percent of students who start college will not graduate in 6 years. Women graduate at a six-percent-higher rate than men within six years, and outnumber men in higher education by a ratio of 3-to-2.  

How does this compare with other countries? In 2008, the U.S. high school graduation rate was lower than the rates of the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Finland and Denmark. That same year, the U.S. was the only developed nation where a higher percent of 55- to 64-year-olds than 25- to 34-year-olds had graduated from high school.

What about college? The U.S. once led the world in college graduates. As an example of this, Americans age 55-to-64 still lead their peers in other nations in the portion with college degrees (41 percent). But this number has flat-lined for Americans. In 2008, the same percentage of Americans age 25-to-34 and age 55-to-64 were college graduates.

Meanwhile, other nations have caught up, and some have pulled ahead. Among this younger age group, 25- to 34-year-olds, all of the following nations now have a larger percent of college graduates than the U.S.: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

This Sunday at 8pm ET, Fareed Zakaria will explore what the U.S. education system needs to do to compete in today's world in a special edition of CNN GPS called "Restoring the America Dream: Fixing Education."


Education and Synthetic Work-Life Earnings Estimates. U.S. Census Bureau, Sept. 2011

Education at a Glance 2011. OECD

The Condition of Education 2011. Department of Education

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Topics: Education

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soundoff (82 Responses)
  1. nancymilton

    Knowledge is the only instrument of production that is not subject to diminishing returns. An interesting research article called "High Speed Universities" is the solution to stop your job hunt. Search for it online.

    November 4, 2011 at 1:22 am | Reply
    • Nelba

      But not all knowledge is a " instrument of production ". Example: Ask math degree baby boomers if they ever really used the stuff they learned in their upper level math courses over the decades. With the exception of probablity and statistics, few will say yes.

      November 15, 2011 at 2:36 am | Reply
      • coolooc

        Please see the link as below –

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        April 25, 2015 at 9:09 am |
  2. Michelle G

    I feel like too many people go into college too soon. It really is better, I think, to take a year or so off before you jump into that. I think kids look at college as the next expected step in their lives rather than as a huge investment in specialized knowledge. Such a big investment requires careful thought and a year of working before college to save money and think about this decision could actually be good for students. So saying that "such and such a percentage of kids don't go to college right away" is not necessarily a bad thing to me.

    I personally wish I had waited a year or two, gotten some work experience first, saved some money, and then started college.

    November 4, 2011 at 7:27 am | Reply
    • Justme

      I think what you wish you had done is the exact trap many youth in the U.S. fall into today. Take off a year, earn enough money that it seems a lot (for a single person with no dependents), procrastinate, and oops now I'm pregnant, now I have car payments, now I don't feel capable of going to school anymore. Don't do it. Go straight into school and finish. I wish I had stayed in school, and gone on to advanced degrees. Now I'm in my late 40's and am paying for college for my own kids. Ooops! Waited too long!

      November 8, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Reply
    • aleigo

      I totally agree. I'm Russian, studied Public Relations in one of the best Universities in S-Peterburg, wanted to make it more international, went to Germany, then for Erasmus in Italy. Now thinking about Master's in England or USA. Now after having completed a very German (sadist, badly-organized, a very specifically German-oriented degree) I wish I had thought for a while before making such a decision! Wish I'd gone directly to London or NY instead of spending 3 beautiful years in depression due to to the wrong country, language and degree. People, take your time, think well before going to a college just for a diploma like I did..

      December 25, 2013 at 7:20 am | Reply
      • aleigo

        My response obviously refers to Michell G's comment 🙂

        December 25, 2013 at 7:22 am |
  3. Anpadh

    Michelle G: Each person's situation is different. There are plenty of kids who have money, have already volunteered and gotten work experience in several fields, know exactly what they want to do and don't want to waste time in a dead-end job before starting college. And, in fact, the kids who do take a year off after high school do not make up their minds about what they want to do, in that time. They just can afford the luxury of not studying AND not working for a year. When a large percentage of high-school graduates do not start college immediately after completing high-school, it means they have no interest in getting a college-education at all. The lack of interest could be due to academic and/or financial reasons. Not every student has good enough grades to go to college. And of the ones who do have decent grades, not everyone has the money to go to college. And then there are those who have figured out that the difference in salary is less than what they pay in student loans.

    November 4, 2011 at 8:05 am | Reply
  4. Sofpod70

    If college tuition was free like in Europe, we'll have a higher rate of college graduate. Lots of people do not want to go in debt for a degree that may or may not help their future.

    November 4, 2011 at 8:06 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yes, the tuition at most European universities are free. One has to pay an administration fee (approx. $700-1.000) a term. In the old days students (with the exception of the Nordic countries) could study for years without any assessment until they faced the final exams. Now since the introduction of the Bologna System, students are assessesed every term. It gives the students and lecturers more work, as points are being awarded at the end of each term.

      November 4, 2011 at 8:58 am | Reply
    • mark

      yes, it may be free, but not everyone can go to college, you have to qualify, so only the best/brightest students get to go, the rest go to trade school to learn a skill (which is also free). The upside is that those that get to go are appreciative and not just going to avoid going to work like in the US. Students that are accepted but due not focus get replaced unlike the US where many going to college just go for the party.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  5. Sarah

    Number for college grads is not right, unless he is including 2-year degrees. BA/BS rate is down below 30%.

    November 4, 2011 at 8:39 am | Reply
  6. jaybark7

    While all these comparisons definitely have merit and point to some worrying trends within the American culture we should definitely be careful to explain differences between the educational systems. As has already been mentioned government funded higher education vs US rates of $8,000+/year for state universities and $24,000+/year for private universities is notable. Also, where is the cut-off for "high school" in different countries? The UK finishes "high school" at 16 with two years of "college" before 3 years of university. Is high school at 16 or 18? Significant for the intention of the article, perhaps not. But for the integrity of the article those differences should be considered.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:16 am | Reply
  7. Valerie

    I beg to differ Fareed. I encourage education BUT, schools and universities do not teach natural Entrepreneurial-ism, Common Sense OR Culture. Living & Dead examples like the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs & Mark Zukerbergs of the world will continue to prove this different. I'm all for education but, I think you better have some Common Sense, be Business Minded and have t the ability to adapt & tolerate Cultures around the Globe or else we will fail with all of our acquired education.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
  8. Fola

    This article is very valid, and I am glad people are finally paying attention to this problem which has been plagued the U.S. for a while now. Most people(students) get offended when this topic comes up. But at what point do you tell the youth, that although you should do what makes you happy, sometimes financial security takes precedence. In terms of education, there are many careers being pursued that are far from lucrative. What do you say to the/your kids?

    Additionally, we should all know, that college education need not be the only way to earn a decent living. Unfortunately, such is the case, more times than not in this age. Government and corporate officials, have together made poor, horrible decisions, when it comes to preserving jobs that require technical skill and some education, but no college education (Technician, skilled production jobs). As such, the incentive to attend college or some technical school, is dwindiling, for those that do not see themselves as capable of becoming a doctor, engineer, or attorney.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:51 am | Reply
  9. Rochelle

    A good portion of the high school problem rests in the fact there are far too many school districts who fabricate graduation credits. This pushes vulnerable students whose needs they either don't understand, or simply don't want to educate, into adulthood where society picks up the tab.
    Utah's State Superintendent of Education knowingly filed a false report to the U.S. Department of Education regarding the 09/10 school year.
    The USDoEd listed Utah as needing monitoring due to concerns about deceptive record keeping. Utah admits to one district being out of compliance regarding one student. He knew about two other students. His compliance officer intentionally botched and then falsified an investigation report to cover for the other infractions. How dare they sacrifice disabled students to artifically inflate graduation and compliance figures.
    Perhaps students don't graduate because they know the system has given up on them and they, then, give up on themselves.
    Ironically, this Superintendent says the word 'three' that was in the original report, in regards to LEAs being out of compliance was a "TYPO". One plus the two he lied about would equal ...?
    The Utah legislature has written laws that make it impossible for students to seek resolution in court, which unfortunately is the only avenue left after disoute resolution has failed.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
  10. amycommunications

    If this is truthful, how could you 'ever' explain me, the statistics on population and its level of education, on the official website of the C.I.A? Here, the statistics on this matter concerning the education of the Americans, looks different, indeed.

    November 4, 2011 at 11:44 am | Reply
  11. Linda

    Census data tells a different story. When you look at the numbers of Americans ages 25 and older with high school diplomas, you get:
    High School Completion (ages 25 and up):

    2009: 89% completed high school
    2000: 80%
    1990: 75%
    1980: 67%
    1970: 53%
    1960: 41%
    1950: 34%
    1940: 25% completed high school

    The problem with measuring graduation rates is the ever-changing ways we calculate them. In Oregon for example, we've switched to something called the "cohort graduation rate" which isn't at all what it sounds like. The switch dropped reported rates substantially at high schools around the state, particularly those with the most transient populations. Students who registered during their senior years credit-deficient or who registered but never attended were counted as dropouts for a school.

    We are in fact educating more and more of the population. When I graduated in 1970, those who didn't fit didn't attend. Our graduation rates probably looked fine and dandy then since non-attenders weren't counted.

    November 4, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
    • Nelba

      Excellent ! When my Grandma graduated HS in 1907 only 10% of americans did so. Horrors! The HS dropout rate was 90% !! How did the nation survive?

      November 15, 2011 at 2:41 am | Reply
    • Chris

      well said!

      November 21, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • j Lin

      Where are your sources for those numbers???

      March 29, 2015 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  12. khalifa marwa

    u're way of the work is an exculant

    November 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  13. Tristan

    What happens when when these numbers are controlled for national-origin?

    I have a feeling that Asian-Americans aren't suffering from terrible dropout rates...

    November 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  14. Elvira Myers

    Tuition rates are abominably high. How can anyone expect parents to pay that kind of money especially if they have more than one child? But in the US there us excellent schooling....the public schools should try to inocorporate some of the curricula of the private schools. I know, I went to one and I get its catalogues and what they offer thwer students is maginificent. But I agree that that costs money...lots of it...but in part it is also having good reachers who love to teach. And stop crying about homework and the lack of extras in the schools. In a Dutch school (before coming to the US) we had loads of homework and one hour of gym a week and one our of singing classes which can hardly be calles implanting a love for music, But somehow most of us made it just fine. It's a matter of priority and of remembering that we are no longer an agrarian country and our kids absolutely don NOT need duch long summer vacations. Not only a waste of time but a drag on the kids and on the parents. That is all.

    November 5, 2011 at 12:38 am | Reply
    • j Lin

      The qualifications to become a teacher isn't terribly high in the US. The saying "Those that can't do, teach." may have some merit.

      March 29, 2015 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  15. Eugene Levich

    The sad fact is that while we are graduating the largest percentage of students in our history, our high school graduates are by-and-large ignorant if not illiterate. Why don't we concern ourselves with what our graduates know rather than on how many of them there are?

    November 5, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  16. Scott

    A more interesting set of statistics would be how many college or university graduates actually end up in a job they studied for, how many are unemployed and how many are in dead end McJobs.

    University education in England is not free (though it is in Scotland as long as you are from any other EU nation but England). The stated reason for that, is that it became unsustainable to provide courses for free due to the amount of people going to university.

    The real mark of quality in higher education is how potential employers value college diplomas and university degrees.

    November 6, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Reply
    • j Lin

      I completely agree! We should report how well Universities performing in matching students to relevant careers. Judging from my peers, in a top US University (Studying in the Sciences) not well. That may be the most shocking statistic of all.

      March 29, 2015 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  17. George

    College was BORING and expensive. I ended up joining the military a year after I graduated from college to learn a real job skill. Unless the job/career you intend to pursue requires a degree ie. teacher, lawyer, doctor etc. people waste their time and money in college when they should be learning a trade or skill. I can't wait for Uncle Sam to foot the bill for my masters in miniature ship building when I'm out of the military. Don't go to college kids.

    November 8, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Reply
  18. Jim Bellanca

    Your summary on reshaping the dream in American education was almost 100% perfect. I could even agree with Gate’s arguments for the vastly improved teaching force that must drive the revolution on the school factory floor. However productive they may be, The Kipp Schools and others like them will not suffice. They are stuck in painting the walls and oiling the machines, new uniforms for the workforce and no substantive change in how teachers teach to match how and what 21st Century students must learn.
    Attached you will find a hidden gem ignored by most pundits because it is one model that suggests a revolutionary change—the New Tech High Schools. Note on the chart the results that are unlike any that the KIPPs and Nobles can declare: a multi-year record of test scores added to the graduation ranks, attendance, etc. These schools blow the farm-factory comprehensive high school out of the water. Above all, these new tech schools are PUBLIC high schools without any special Charter waivers.
    How do Manor New Tech students earn these result while theirpeers in the local comprehensive high school and the state are struggling? They do it with a unique 21st Century technology-enriched project-based-learning model that not only soars test results, but also develops 21st Century skills in a rigorous curriculum. If you want to see a revolutionary public school producing revolutionary results, take a look at all of their stats and see a most promising model for real school reform.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
  19. Nelba

    Is Fareed misleading us with spinned statistics? He list countries whose HS grad rate is higher than the USA. BUT that is misleading, alomost an untruth, since Germany for instance has fewer of its students starting "High School". They go to trade schools instead. If only the better students are going to HS in Germany, then they of course have a highger success rate. Somebody with better knowledge than me should respond.

    November 15, 2011 at 3:01 am | Reply
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