College Dropouts Outnumber K-12 Dropouts

Four years ago, I wrote about an eye-opening statistic: More American adults have dropped out of college than out of K-12 education. I recently updated the data, and the long-term trends are continuing:

In pure, raw numbers, college dropouts are now a bigger problem than high school dropouts*. As of 2017, there were almost 31 million college dropouts compared to 22.5 million Americans with less than a high school diploma. Over the last decade, the number of K-12 dropouts has fallen by over 5 million people, while the number of college dropouts has risen by nearly 3 million. As I predicted, this divergence will only accelerate as older generations with lower educational attainment rates are gradually replaced by new generations with higher attainment rates.

Last year I wrote about how this trend should shape the future work of education reformers. My conclusion at the time still stands:

We’ve had some success in boosting low-level basic skills and getting more students through K-12 education, but we need a different set of policy solutions, and a broader perspective, if we’re going to carry that progress through to higher-level skills and higher college completion rates. Finding those answers will matter both to the individuals in our education systems today and to our broader society going forward.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman

*Note: “K-12 dropouts” here includes all Americans over age 25 who have less than a GED or high school diploma. “College dropouts” takes all Americans over age 25 who list “some college, no degree” as their highest level of educational attainment and subtracts out anyone over age 25 still enrolled in higher education seeking their first postsecondary credential or degree.