Gaps in Graduation Rates Persist: New data underscore the economic and health imperative of supporting students to graduate

Written by

Terri Wright
Terri Wright Terri D. Wright is the director of the newly established Center for School, Health & Education Division of Public Health Policy and Practice at the American Public Health Association. She will provide leadership to the strategic development and integration of public health in school-based health care and education. She recently retired from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, MI where she served for 12 years as a program director for health policy. In that capacity Terri developed and reviewed the Foundation’s health programming priorities and initiatives, evaluated and recommended proposals for funding, and administered projects and initiatives. She also assisted in public policy analysis and related policy program development, as well as provided leadership to the Foundation’s school-based health care policy program. Previously, Terri was maternal and child health director and bureau chief for Child and Family Services at the Michigan Department of Community Health in Lansing, Michigan. In that role, she managed policy, programs and resources with the goal of reducing preventable maternal, infant, and child morbidity and mortality through policy and programming. She received her bachelor’s degree in community and school health, as well as her New York State certification in secondary school education from the City University of New York and her master’s of public health degree in health planning and administration from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is currently a doctoral student in public health at the University of Michigan. Terri takes an active leadership role in several professional associations and community organizations including the American Public Health Association and the Institute of Medicine’s Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity and the Elimination of Health Disparities.

Graduation from high school is not only a rite of passage, it is the ticket to economic prosperity and quality of life. The formula is simple: High school graduates are more employable, healthier and more likely to have health insurance, all of which positively contribute to our economy.

But here’s the flip side of that formula: New graduation data show glaring achievement gaps for students of color and economically disadvantaged students.

Last month the U.S. Department of Education released 2011-12 high school graduation rates. Rates range from 59 percent in the District of Columbia to 88 percent in Iowa. Looking more closely, we see that only 49 percent of black students in Minnesota graduate, compared with 84 percent of their white peers. In Ohio, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students was 65 percent; for all students it was 80 percent.

If we continue to leave these young people behind, to let them leave school early without a diploma, we fuel a continuing cycle of poverty, unemployment and costly chronic disease. That’s a failing grade for us all.

The connection between graduation and life-long opportunity is underscored in Healthy People 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) 10-year goals for health promotion and disease prevention. For the first time, Healthy People links education and health, naming graduation a public health priority. This is a groundbreaking step that acknowledges the inextricable relationship between education and health and compels us to aggressively tackle the dropout crisis from all fronts.

According to DHHS, academic success and achievement are associated with lower rates of risky adult behaviors and higher rates of healthy behaviors, and are strong predictors of overall adult health outcomes. In addition high school graduation lowers the risk for incarceration and leads to enhanced financial stability during adulthood.

So how can we abide one third of our students dropping out before graduation?

Turning this crisis around requires a hard look at why youth are dropping out of school. The main causes are social––experiences such as bullying, violence, poor nutrition, and poverty-generated factors that impact students’ health and ability to succeed academically.

See the pattern? Poverty, social barriers and poor health keep students from graduating. And dropping out leads to poverty and poor health as adults. We must break this cycle.

One of the best strategies to address this issue is school-based health care. Our nation’s 1900 school-based health centers help students avoid risky behaviors, triage crises like violence and hunger at home and school, and provide the mental and physical healthcare that allows students to come to class and focus. They create a positive school environment, which is proven to boost attendance and academic achievement and protects against risky behaviors.

For example, the number one reason girls drop out of high school is teen pregnancy. Boys often drop out because of disciplinary issues, an action that disproportionately impacts boys of color. Students of both genders also drop out because they’re working to support their families, are disengaged from school, or have chronic absenteeism—all of which link to social factors and the need to support young people’s social, emotional and physical health.

Across the country, a collective will is building to keep students in school, healthy, and on track to graduation. The NAACP, for example, has adopted a resolution to promote educational success and student health by advancing school-based health centers. The American Public Health Association adopted a policy to improve high school graduation and established the Center for School, Health and Education to advance conditions favorable to learning and graduation and note graduation as a public health priority.

We have the opportunity to make a powerful shift in our country. By knocking down social barriers to students’ success, we can end the cycle of dropout, poor adult health and low earning potential. By using school-based healthcare to boost graduation rates we can create a new reality that includes good student health, higher graduation rates, better adult health and higher economic productivity.

Most importantly, we can close the achievement gap so all our students have equal opportunity to graduate, and we can level the playing field for career success and economic prosperity.


Terri D. Wright is Director of the American Public Health Association Center for School, Health and Education. For more information about the Center and what you can do to support graduation outcomes for students across the country, please visit

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