Just a few months into his senior year of high school, Niziere Clarke realized he wasn’t going to graduate on time.
He’d been struggling academically since COVID hit in the spring of his junior year. After an unsuccessful first quarter, Clarke, who lives in Toms River, New Jersey, started to spend more time doing freelance animation and digital art work and stopped engaging in his classes.
“Most of the time, I would log in, but I barely paid attention,” he said. When he finished the year without the credits he needed, he never returned.
Clarke, who is 21 and has since obtained his GED, is one of thousands of students who saw their time in high school disrupted by the pandemic. Those experiences have fueled concerns about a generation of students missing their shot at a high school diploma, especially as enrollment falls — and recently, several states have seen their dropout rates climb.
Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, and several other states reported jumps in their dropout rates this past year. This month, North Carolina officials said that the state’s dropout numbers were 17% higher than pre-pandemic.
But the scale of the problem remains hard to define. While a diploma is a definitive sign of high completion, classifying a student as having dropped out is a more ambiguous process that can take time and effort by staff — complicated by the fact that some students will take longer than four years to complete their requirements.
“We don’t really have a handle on the post-pandemic story yet,” said Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “A little bit of this comes down to how much administrative effort a school puts into keeping their data up to date.”
For that and other reasons, experts caution against focusing too closely on the specific dropout rates themselves, which can lag years behind more reliable measures. Instead, they said attention should be on earlier indicators of academic struggle — and helping students like Clarke get across the finish line.
Clarke, who had felt on track before the pandemic, said his motivation evaporated as his community faded and he lost touch with teachers and friends. Things about senior year that had excited him, like upcoming performances with his school’s dance team, were suddenly stripped away.
“There was so much stuff that I really wanted to do during that time, but ever since COVID, I got pulled away,” he said. “Everyone just disappeared.”
What we know about today’s high school completion rates
For years, America’s high school graduation rates have trended up. Between 2010 and 2019, the nation’s average graduation rate rose from 79% to 86%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, the share of young people who were not in school and didn’t have a high school credential fell.
Across states, high school graduation rates held steady when the pandemic first hit, but dipped for the class of 2021. In 2022, states generally saw only slight shifts.
Dropout rates are messier. No recent federal data shows where the country’s dropout rate sits, and state and local district data reveals a varying picture. In Kansas, state reports show the dropout rate fell slightly in 2022, even as other areas saw upticks.
The numbers also don’t invite easy comparisons, as schools, districts, and states can use different criteria. In Michigan, for example, the dropout rate increased to 8.19% while Colorado’s went up to 2.2%, and the two figures are calculated differently.
Timelines for determining when a student has dropped out vary, too.
In Oregon, for example, education officials warned that an increase in its dropout rate from 1.8% to 4% last year came in part due to the suspension of a policy that saw anyone who missed 10 or more consecutive days automatically categorized as a dropout, the Oregon Capitol Chronicle reported. (Under the policy, students are only included in the dropout rate if they do not show up elsewhere by the end of the academic year, according to a state education department spokesperson.) When the policy was reinstated in the 2021-22 school year, the dropout rate included students who would have ordinarily been counted in the year prior.
And while a few states are seeing dropout rates inch upwards, that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer students are graduating. In fact, both Colorado and Michigan saw their graduation rates increase last year even as more students dropped out.
The seeming contradiction is due in part to how the figures are calculated. In Colorado, for example, dropout rates refer to how many seventh to 12th grade students disenroll from schools in a given year.
“The dropout rate gives us that pulse across a wider spectrum of kids, whereas the graduation rate is only giving us what happened to ninth graders that enrolled four years earlier,” Balfanz said.
Russell Rumberger, a former professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who studied school dropouts for decades, said indicators of students falling off course are more helpful.
Dropout rates, he said, are “not very good about telling the story,” he said. “The story is really about enrollment over time and attending school over time.”
Why students drop out
The dropout data may be unclear, but what is obvious is that the challenges of the pandemic threw some students off course. When classes became virtual in 2020, students suddenly needed a stable internet connection, a computer, and in many cases, an adult at home who could help keep them on track during the school day.
For students facing academic, mental health, or financial challenges, the situation became extremely difficult to navigate, said Megan Facer, a clinical assistant director at Youth Villages, a nonprofit that helps young people across the country experiencing emotional, mental, and behavioral problems.
“There just becomes this hopelessness,” she said. “They’re not incentivized to keep going to school, because it’s just too hard, and in fact they may never catch up.”
Those feelings met a job market that needed more workers, and some students found themselves entering the workforce — especially those who needed to support their families through an added income. And as some young people left education behind, it became harder to return.
“When we reopened, they had to decide, ‘Do I go back to school, where I wasn’t doing that great, and I don’t know what the relevance of it is anyway? Or do I stay in this $20- to $25-an-hour job?” said Steve Dobo, founder of Zero Dropouts, an educational social enterprise that works with school districts in Colorado. “A lot of them are choosing to stay in those jobs.”
Clarke, too, chose to prioritize earnings early in the pandemic, but he always wanted to continue his studies. He obtained his GED with help from LifeSet, a community program through Youth Villages and Preferred Behavioral Health Group that helps young people aging out of foster care or other children’s services. Now, Clarke plans to attend college in the fall to study computer animation.
But still, he admits that his plans were set back by the pandemic. Without the disruptions, Clarke knows he would’ve remained “dead focused” on reaching his goals.
“If COVID never happened, I would’ve graduated,” he said.
Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering national issues. Contact him at email@example.com.