U.S. Education secretary Arne Duncan called the achievement a “record-setting milestone” and a “vital step” in preparing students for future success. So it stands to reason that the record number of graduates should result in a windfall of qualified applicants for college and universities across America—but the data suggests otherwise.
Eighty-one percent of high school seniors graduated in 2013, yet college enrollment across the U.S. dropped to 66 percent—the lowest rate since 2007. What’s more, the nation’s average college graduation rate in 2013 dwindled to 49 percent.
So, why is the number of Americans graduating high school rising while the number of those making it into, and through, college dwindling?
"The Department of Education data is incredibly helpful as colleges and universities work to identify high school seniors as prospective students in their area, but it doesn't tell the entire story,” said Bob King, Managing Director, Enrollment Growth Strategies at Collegis Education.
Collegis Education, a Chicago-based marketing and technology services company, created an interactive enrollment trends tool that allows users to compare graduation and enrollment data for colleges and universities over the last 10 years.
The relationship between high school graduation rates and college success deserves a closer look.
America’s highest graduation rates – key findings
Some interesting trends emerge when looking at the top rankings. For example, four of the top six states with the highest high school graduation rates are located in the Midwest:
- Iowa – 90%
- Nebraska – 88%
- New Jersey – 88%
- North Dakota – 88%
- Texas – 88%
- Wisconsin – 88%
The cluster of Midwestern states is surprising, but even more so when considering only one of the top six states for high school graduation rates show up in the top 10 for college graduation rates. Seven of the top 10 states with the highest college graduation rates are located in the eastern U.S.—with Iowa making the only appearance for the Midwest.
- Rhode Island – 69%
- Massachusetts – 69%
- Connecticut – 61%
- Pennsylvania – 58%
- California – 55%
- Iowa – 54%
- New York – 54%
- Wyoming – 54%
- Delaware – 53%
- Maine – 53%
America’s lowest graduation rates
The trends appear a little more consistent at the opposite end of the spectrum. Four of the six lowest high school graduation rates come from states located in the West. The remaining states are in the South.
- Oregon – 69%
- New Mexico – 70%
- Nevada – 71%
- Georgia – 72%
- Arizona – 72%
- Louisiana – 74%
When considering college graduation rates it’s noteworthy that four of the six states with the lowest high school graduation rates also rank among states with the lowest college graduation rates.
- Alaska – 29%
- Nevada – 37%
- Arkansas – 37%
- Georgia – 38%
- Oklahoma – 38%
- Louisiana – 39%
- New Mexico – 40%
- Hawaii – 40%
- West Virginia – 40%
- Colorado – 41%
- Texas – 41%
Harnessing education technology in higher education
So, again, we’re back to the disparity between high school and college success.
The data suggests high school graduation is a high priority in the Midwest, but less so once those students move into higher education. Or perhaps the Midwest is witnessing a “brain drain” by which students are simply leaving their home states to enroll in college elsewhere.
On the other end of the spectrum, the data shows a declining number of students in the South and West becoming eligible for high school or college graduation.
So, what can higher education institutions do to improve enrollment and promote success?
Duncan told the TIME Summit on Higher Education that polls show three out of four Americans believe a college education is necessary to “get ahead in life.” At the same time, he said, three out of four believe that college today is too expensive.
He also pointed to low completion rates and a lack of accountability among higher education institutions to improve attainment and achievement.
To combat these issues, Duncan offered a two-part remedy. First, a “shared partnership” between institutions and state and federal government to keep costs down and improve the quality of education.
The second part of Duncan’s remedy is perhaps more intriguing. He urged higher education institutions to harness “educational technology.”
Duncan warned of “a digital revolution [that] is already underway in higher education.” He said colleges and universities need to “learn and perfect” offerings like online learning, adaptive software, analytics and simulations/gaming if they want to tap the vast potential of prospective students out there.
American students are savvier than ever and they’re unwilling to accrue the levels of debt with which previous generations are saddled. The best way to reach those students, recruit new ones and consistently hit enrollment goals is to lean on the types of educational technology solutions Duncan references.
Collegis Education is a technology-based services company that helps higher education institutions navigate the changing landscape of education using a robust analytical approach to meet operational needs.