High School Graduates

High school diplomas represent the culmination of more than a decade of education and provide the foundation for future earning potential. Educational attainment is associated with higher earnings and improved health outcomes.[1] In 2021, American workers aged 25 and older with a high school diploma earned 29% higher median usual weekly earnings than workers without one. A high school diploma is necessary for enrollment at most colleges; workers with a bachelor’s degree had median usual weekly earnings 65% higher than those with a high school diploma in 2021.[2]
Students who are less likely to graduate from high school include those from low-income families,[3] from minority racial or ethnic backgrounds,[4] whose parents are divorced,[5] who have mental health or substance use concerns,[6] or who are arrested or incarcerated.[7] Nationwide, low-income and disabled students are more likely to drop out of high school than non-low-income students and non-disabled students.[8] Academic struggles, negative interactions with other students or school employees, mental illness or developmental disorders, family or financial problems, unmet learning needs, not liking school, believing it would be easier to get a GED, and other issues are other reasons students may leave school.[9],[10] 
This report presents the proportion of 19- and 20-year-olds who have completed grade 12 or higher from the ACS. This aligns with the Urban Institute’s “preparation for college” metric (19- and 20-year-olds who have graduated high school[11]), which allows for comparison across other parts of the country. Common alternate metrics include the proportion of the population age 25 and over with a high school degree (sometimes published by the Census Bureau and the County of San Diego[12],[13]) or adult educational attainment. These measures offer a picture of the educational background of the entire population but dilute current graduation rates and near-term progress. Observing the high school attainment of people within a year or two of graduation is a lagging indicator but measuring as close to graduation age as possible provides information most relevant to policy decisions. Graduation rates reported by education agencies are another option, but only reflect public school students who graduate on time, leaving out students who took an extra year to complete school, private school students, and homeschooled students. For context, San Diego County’s 2020-21 four-year public high school graduation rate was 82.5% and California‘s 2020-21 rate was 83.6%.[14]
In San Diego County in 2021, 94.2% of 19- and 20-year-olds had completed grade 12 or higher. Disparities were evident for race/ethnicity, sex, disability status, and immigrant status (Figures 1-4). The following groups of 19- and 20-year-olds had lower graduation rates compared to the county overall in 2021: 91.3% of Hispanic or Latino, 88.6% of Black or African American, 93.2% of male, 78.4% of disabled, and 90.0% of immigrant completed grade 12 or higher.

Data Information
Data Source: 2021 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates from IPUMS USA.
  • Persons of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity may belong to any race group. All categories except Hispanic or Latino include persons for whom race is known but ethnicity is non-Hispanic or unknown.
  • The ACS produces estimates based on a sample of the population. Percentages at or near 0% or 100% should be interpreted with caution.
  1. Zajacova, A. & Lawerence, E. (2021). Postsecondary Educational Attainment and Health among Younger U.S. Adults in the “College-for-All Era. Socius 7:1-13. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/23780231211021197
  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Education pays, 2021: Career Outlook. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2022/data-on-display/education-pays.htm
  3. McFarland, J. (2018). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2018. 101.
  4. Hjalmarsson, R. (2008). Criminal justice involvement and high school completion. Journal of Urban Economics, 63(2), 613–630. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jue.2007.04.003
  5. Brand, J. E., Moore, R., Song, X., & Xie, Y. (2019). Parental divorce is not uniformly disruptive to children’s educational attainment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(15), 7266–7271. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1813049116
  6. Breslau, J., Miller, E., Joanie Chung, W.-J., & Schweitzer, J. B. (2011). Childhood and adolescent onset psychiatric disorders, substance use, and failure to graduate high school on time. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45(3), 295–301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.06.014
  7. Hjalmarsson, R. (2008). Criminal justice involvement and high school completion. Journal of Urban Economics, 63(2), 613–630. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jue.2007.04.003
  8. Feldman, D. L., Smith, A. T., & Waxman, B. L. (2017). “Why We Drop Out”: Understanding and Disrupting Student Pathways to Leaving School. Teachers College Press.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Doll, J. J., Eslami, Z., & Walters, L. (2013). understanding why students drop out of high school, according to their own reports: Are they pushed or pulled, or do they fall out? A comparative analysis of seven nationally representative studies. SAGE Open, 3(4), 2158244013503834. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244013503834
  11. High-quality Education | Boosting Upward Mobility (Urban Institute). (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2023, from https://upward-mobility.urban.org/high-quality-education#preparation-for-college
  12. U.S. Census Bureau. (n.d.). High School Completion Rate Is Highest in U.S. History. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2017/educational-attainment-2017.html
  13. Live Well San Diego. Health and Human Services Agency. (2023). 2017-2021 Demographic Profiles. Retrieved from, https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/dam/sdc/hhsa/programs/phs/CHS/2021%20Region%20SRA%20Demographic%20Profiles.pdf
  14. CA Dept of Education. (n.d.). Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate—San Diego County. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/dqcensus/CohRate.aspx?agglevel=county&year=2020-21&cds=37
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Updated February 7, 2024