High school graduation rates have reached a new high following a decade-long campaign to raise graduation rates. A graduate wears his mortarboard with Free at Last written during the commencement ceremony for Cypress Bay High School graduates at Marlins Park on June 4, 2012 in Miami, Florida.  - 

For the first time, high school graduation rates in the U.S. are above 80 percent. That’s according to a report called “Building a GradNation.” The study was released today by a coalition of education groups, including Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates CenterAmerica’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The news represents a significant improvement since 2001, when 71 percent of American teenagers graduated from high school. Researchers say several things have changed since then. One, there is better data, so the public is more aware of the problem. Two, the accountability movement in education: think "No Child Left Behind."

Robert Balfanz,  co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center and a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, says when researchers started digging into the numbers, it showed that just 12 percent of the nation’s high schools were producing nearly half of the dropouts. Those high schools are known in education circles as “dropout factories.”  

John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and one of the principal authors of the report, says some of those “dropout factories” have closed. “But many of them were re-tooled or re-designed,” Bridgeland says. “Smaller learning environments have been created. More personalized, engaging, rigorous classrooms that keep these young people in school and on track to graduate.”

Some states have raised graduation rates dramatically. North Carolina went from a 68 percent graduation rate in 2005 to over 82 percent today.

Jim Key, area superintendent for high schools in Durham, North Carolina, says his district now starts tracking students who are potential dropouts while they are still in middle school. Then the district sends them to ninth grade a few weeks early.

“That gives them a chance to become more acclimated to high school, to build some positive relationship with a few teachers, administrators and counselors,” Key says. It just gives those students a leg up, if you will, on being prepared for high school, to understand the expectations and what’s at stake.”

 What’s at stake is earning power, among other things. John Bridgeland says a high school graduate “will make $1 million more over his or her life time, than a high school dropout.”

 College graduates, of course, do even better. The latest statistics, however, show that fewer high school graduates are applying to college. Just under two-thirds of the class of 2013 attended college in the fall.


By Shea Huffman/Marketplace

Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner