Graduation time: Hold the celebration

Patrick Gibbons

High school graduation is a time when families celebrate students' achievement. Not only does a high school diploma imply an ability to start and complete a lengthy project. It also signals to the adult world and the marketplace that you have at least some ability to learn and be productive.

For this reason, high school graduates earn, on average, at least 38 percent more money per week than do high school drop-outs — and, with even more education, income rises substantially. High school graduates also live healthier, longer lives on average, and are less likely to go to jail or live in poverty.

Unfortunately, graduation time in Nevada is not as cheerful as it should be. Sobering data from the National Center for Education Statistics puts the "Average Freshman Graduation Rate" in Nevada at 51.3 percent for the 2007-08 school year — worst in the nation and 23.6 points lower than the national average.  

NCES also notes that the drop-out rate in Nevada is 5.1 percent — 24 percent higher than the national average. In 2007-08 alone, 6,170 Silver State students dropped out of high school. Many, per the statistics, are destined for poverty and crime.

Although NCES did not break down Nevada's graduation rates by race, a 2009 report by Education Week did — estimating that just 47.3 percent of Nevada students would graduate high school within four years. That's 21.9 points below the national average. (See updated information on Education Week's 2010 report).

According to Education Week, Nevada was significantly behind the national average on all categories with the exception of Asian/Pacific Islander students. The graduation rate is particularly poor for minority students: Barely one-third of Hispanic, black and Native American students in the state graduate high school in four years.

Table 1: Nevada graduation rates by sex and race compared to national average









Native American



















Point Difference









Percentage Difference









*Source: Education Week

It may be true that Nevada's especially low graduation rates and high drop-out rates flow in part from factors unique to the state, such as the historic availability of lucrative jobs in the gaming industry not requiring high school diplomas. However, the Great Recession is strongly suggesting that day is past.

Currently, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among high school drop-outs last year was 51 percent higher than among high school graduates. Vis-à-vis people with a bachelor's degree, it was 181 percent higher.

Low graduation rates and high drop-out rates have other economic and social costs. According to the National Dropout Prevention Center, high school drop-outs cost us all collectively hundreds of billions of dollars in lost earnings and tax revenue. Nationwide, 75 percent of prison inmates are drop-outs. To put that in perspective, 52 percent of black Americans who do not graduate from high school currently end up in jail by their early 30s. Finally, drop-outs are also more likely to be illiterate, single parents and dependent on welfare. Their mortality rate is 36 percent higher than that of high school graduates and 215 percent higher than people who have at least some higher education.

A primary reason behind Nevada's graduation and drop-out rates is the failure of the state's government schools to teach children to read. Research shows students who cannot read by the end of fourth grade are quite likely to leave high school prematurely. Today, fewer than half of Nevada's African-American, Hispanic and low-income children read at grade level by the fourth grade.

One reform that has provided tremendous bang for the buck elsewhere is a ban on social promotion out of the third grade. If kids cannot read by the end of the year, make them repeat the grade. It really is that simple.

A 2004 Manhattan Institute study found that low-performing third graders in Florida, after being held back, improved their reading and math scores on the state FCAT and Stanford-9 exams twice as much as did their similarly low-performing classmates who did not repeat. Another report two years later found that the students who had been retained had caught up with their peers, while the low-performing students whose parents opted for social promotion continued to fall further and further behind.

Nevada lawmakers need to quit ducking this issue and recognize reality.

UPDATE: Shortly after NPRI published this article, Education Week released its 2010 report on graduation rates in Nevada. Education Week's new report shows that graduation rates in Nevada have again declined.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit