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Demographic Shifts in High School Graduate Populations

January 22, 2013

The report Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates is the eighth in a series of demographic publications produced by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). The report examines recent trends in the number of public and non-public high school graduates and offers projections of growth over the next two decades. Understanding these trends is important for education leaders and policy makers at all levels because trends in high school graduates usually provide an indicator of the direction of future college enrollments, particularly enrollments of students age 18 to 24.

The report suggests that the U.S. is seeing an overall decline in the number of high school graduates, the first such decline in nearly a decade. From academic year 2009-10 to 2013-14, the number of new graduates from public high schools is expected to fall from approximately 3.1 million to 2.9 million. The decline of new graduates from non-public schools is expected to be even more dramatic-falling from about 312,000 to 282,000. Public high school graduation numbers are projected to stabilize somewhat over the years after 2013-14, rising to 3 million by 2027-28. Non-public graduates, however, are predicted to fall further, to 229,000.

Trends by Region and Race/Ethnicity

Overall, the total number of high school graduates is expected to decrease from 3.39 million in 2009-10 to 3.25 million in 2027-28. When looking at region and race/ethnicity, the trends will vary substantially. The number of graduates in the Northeastern states will drop from its predicted peak in 2010-11 of almost 644,000 graduates to 576,000 in 2027-28-an 11 percent decrease. Similarly, the number of Midwest graduates, which peaked in 2007-08 at 772,000 graduates, is projected to drop by roughly 12 percent, to 676,000. The South is projected to be the only region with net growth in high school graduates by 2027-28. The number of graduates from Southern high schools is projected to grow by about 5 percent over the next two decades.

High school graduation trends will be greatly affected by changes in the racial/ethnic composition of students. Nationally, between 2008-09 and 2019-20, WICHE estimates that the number of White non-Hispanic public high schools will drop by 12 percent, and the number who are African American will decline by 9 percent. At the same time, the number of Latino graduates will jump 41 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islanders will rise 30 percent. Within the states, changes in populations of graduates will vary considerably. Between 2008-09 and 2019-20, the number of Asian/Pacific Islander new graduates will grow throughout the U.S. except in Wisconsin and Hawaii, while in contrast about half the states will see substantial decreases in African American graduates. The number of White non-Hispanic graduates will rise only in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, and Utah. By 2019-20, WICHE estimates that Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Nevada will reach "majority-minority" status in high school graduation numbers (where public high schools graduate more non-Whites than White non-Hispanics). The District of Columbia, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas, achieved "majority-minority" distinction by 2008-09. These data suggest that colleges and universities in these and most other states will be seeing a much greater share of non-White entering students during the next two decades.

Copies of Knocking on the College Door are available from the WICHE Web site. The site includes a link to state-level projects for each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. 


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis