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Numbers of High School Graduates Expected to Decline, Stagnate, Report Says

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By guest blogger Madeline Will

The overall number of high school graduates has been increasing steadily over the last decade-plus—but according to a new report, that growth is coming to a halt as the United States heads into a period of stagnation. 

The number of U.S. high school graduates is expected to show virtually no growth for the next seven years and will likely decline this school year, says the report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a regional nonprofit that aims to expand access to high-quality higher education. The report was funded with support from ACT Inc. and the College Board.

There have been steady increases in the overall number of high school graduates over the last 15 years—and, at last count, the high school graduation rate increased 1 percentage point to 83.2 percent from the 2013-14 school year to 2014-15. That bump marked the fourth year in a row high school graduation rates have increased.

But according to WICHE's projections, the country actually will produce 81,000 fewer
graduates—2.3 percent less—in 2017 and the decline may be largely due to changing demographics. The United States is projected to produce fewer high school graduates each year from 2014 to 2023, compared to the highest recorded number of graduates in 2013. There will be a short period of growth between 2024 to 2026, but between 2027 and 2032, the average size of graduating classes is expected to be smaller than it was in 2013.

The number of students graduating from private high schools will decline even more sharply—by 26 percent, or 80,000 fewer graduates, from 2011 to the early 2030s. This is due to declining enrollments in private schools, particularly in Roman Catholic schools, the report notes. 

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The report projects significant increases in nonwhite high school graduates, coupled with steady declines in the numbers of white graduates. By 2030, the number of white public school graduates is projected to decrease by 14 percent when compared to 2013. But the number of nonwhite public school graduates is expected to counterbalance some of that decline, particularly among Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander graduates. 

The number of Hispanic public high school graduates is projected to increase by 50 percent or more from 2014 to 2025. There is expected to be a 30 percent increase in Asian or Pacific Islander graduates from 2013 to the early 2030s. 

However, the number of black, non-Hispanic public high school graduates is projected to decline by about 6 percent between now and the early 2030s. 

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"As graduations level out and even decline in many states, and the minority students increase across the board, states and their K-12 and higher education leaders have an important opportunity to ensure that they close achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color," said Joe Garcia, the president of WICHE, in a statement. "Equally important, our higher education systems must establish policies and practices that will lead to greater attainment of degrees and certificates for students of color."

Garcia said on a press call that historically, higher education institutions focus recruitment on well-prepared, well-resourced students. But now, with the shifting demographics of high school graduates, colleges and universities must alter their policies, he said.

"It's hard to make the argument to institutions that they need to recruit academically unprepared or less-resourced students, but those are the students that we have," Garcia said. "If institutions continue to do the things they have always done, but with a different population, they're going to have worse results, lower enrollments, and they're going to lose [the students] to other institutions that are more ... forward-looking." 

Garcia said that to make sure that Hispanic, African-American, and first-generation students of all races are prepared to succeed in college, they need better counseling and advice starting in high school. 

And educators need to set high expectations for all students, said William Serrata, the president of El Paso Community College, on the call.

"We need to develop that college-going culture when students are still in elementary school," he said.

Dual-enrollment programs are also effective for getting students on the college track, he said.

The report also looks at regional differences in the numbers of high school graduates. The Northeast and the Midwest will experience continuing declines, while the West will see slight increases. Meanwhile, the report projects the South will see "significant and steady increases." Readers can see individual state profiles and an interactive map here

Images via WICHE report 

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