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Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates

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Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates

Final Report to Nation on Efforts to Improve
High School Graduation Rates Shows Long-Term Gains

Due to focused efforts, 5 million more students graduated,
rather than dropping out, from 2001 through 2020.

More than half a million more students received diplomas this year due to progress.

Washington, D.C. – This year’s Building A Grad Nation 2023: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates marks the final report to the nation on a 20-year effort to boost high school graduation rates. Co-authored by CIVIC and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, and sponsored by the Lumina Foundation and Hewlett Foundation, the report shows graduation rates rising from 71 percent in 2001 to 86.5 percent by the Class of 2020, translating into 5 million more students graduating, rather than dropping out, during that period.

In 2001, nearly one-third of students across the nation were dropping out of high school, as graduation rates flatlined at around 69 to 71 percent from the 1970s through the turn of the century. Multiple efforts emerged to address the challenge, including creating a common calculation of graduation rates, listening to the perspectives of students who had dropped out, identifying the 15 percent of schools where 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts were located, the spread of early warning and on-track systems, passing major federal legislation introducing graduation rate accountability, and working across politics, sectors, and areas of the country to boost high school graduation rates. 

In 2010, these multi-year efforts were formalized into the GradNation Campaign, launched in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama and led by General Colin and Mrs. Alma Powell of America’s Promise Alliance. In the early 2000s, the campaign set the ambitious goal of reaching a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020, generated a Civic Marshall Plan of action to meet it, and initiated more than 200 summits across the country to mobilize leaders across sectors and keep partners accountable for progress over time. 

National improvements were driven by large gains in high school graduation rates by Black, Hispanic, and low-income Americans, who also more than doubled their enrollment in post-secondary education. Although the nation fell short of its 90 percent graduation goal by 115,000 students, the nation reached an all time high of 86.5 percent in 2020, ten states reached the 90 percent goal, and another 10 states are within one percentage point of 90 percent, while 15 states needed less than 1,000 additional graduates to reach the 90 percent goal in 2020.   

“Americans have a long history of civic moonshots to improve our country,” said John Bridgeland, founder and CEO of CIVIC and Executive Chairman of the Office of American Possibilities. “The nation’s 20-year effort to transcend politics, sectors, and regions of the country to boost high school graduation rates is a powerful reminder that Americans can do anything when they put their energies behind it.”

Due to COVID-19-related delays, 2020 and 2021 data were released simultaneously, which allowed the final report to offer a glimpse of the graduating class of 2021. As the first cohort to experience a full year of the damaging impacts of COVID-19, the class of 2021 saw its graduation rate slip to 86.1 percent, the first annual decrease for the nation since the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) was calculated in 2011.

In addition to a preview on the class of 2021, the final report reviews high school graduation rates and incorporates a first-of-its-kind analysis of the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, which examined the prevalence of credit recovery for the class of 2013, and the Secondary School Improvement Index, which compares trends in high school graduation rates to other academic outcomes of states’ secondary schools. Despite the great progress made over the course of the 20-year effort culminating in the GradNation Campaign, equity gaps persist, and the COVID-19 pandemic had significant impacts on student learning and health.

One of the most important lessons learned from the campaign is that high school graduation can no longer be an endpoint for students, but must rather serve as an indicator for future success.

The report concludes with eight policy recommendations to consolidate and further the progress made to date:

  • Continue to improve graduation rate data collection and reporting
  • Promote policies that reduce detrimental academic disparities
  • Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers
  • Align state graduation requirements with college admission requirements
  • Further examine credit recovery programs
  • Continue to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 and address education gaps it exposed
  • Expand the use of the next generation of Early Warning/Student Success Systems
  • Grow the National Partnership for Student Success

Building strong pathways to the future for all young people will require a successor effort, one that keeps attention focused on improving high school graduation rates, but also extends its perspective beyond the classroom to the world of credentials, college, community, and career. 

“Jobs today and into the future will require not only a high school diploma, but some post-secondary training and education,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “High school graduation is not the end of our collective efforts to prepare the next generation for adult success; all students need to graduate high school with a secure and supported pathway to a bright future.”   

While the vision for the successor campaign is still being developed, CIVIC and the Everyone Graduates Center are partnering with other leaders in the field to develop a new initiative, taking the important lessons learned from the GradNation Campaign and applying them beyond high school to chart a pathway to future success for all young people.

Follow this link to read the full report.

Follow this link to access the social press kit. 

Authors and Sponsors

Building A Grad Nation is authored by Matthew Atwell and John Bridgeland of CIVIC and Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Together, the organizations led, in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education, the GradNation campaign, a nationwide effort to boost the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the workforce. This year’s report is presented by the Lumina Foundation, as lead sponsor, and the Hewlett Foundation, contributing sponsor. 

This report marks the final update on the progress and challenges in raising high school graduation rates. AT&T’s support of Building A Grad Nation is part of the company’s longstanding commitment to education. Since 2008, AT&T has committed $600 million to programs that help millions of students across all 50 states and around the world, particularly those in underserved communities.


CIVIC is a bipartisan social enterprise firm that helps corporations, nonprofits, foundations, universities, and governments develop and spearhead innovative public policies to strengthen our communities and country. Created to enlist the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to help address our nation’s toughest problems, CIVIC fashions new initiatives and strategies that achieve measurable results in the fields of education, civic engagement, economic mobility, national service, and many other domestic policy issues. 

The Everyone Graduates Center at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education seeks to identify the barriers to high school graduation, develop strategic solutions to overcome these barriers, and build local capacity to implement and sustain the solutions so that all students graduate prepared for adult success.