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April 30, 2014

Virginia’s High School Graduation Rate: Making Progress, Needs Improvement

Virginia has made significant progress in improving its public high school graduation rate, but a large gap between low-income students and all other students continues to be a problem.

Virginia’s overall four-year graduation rate for the class of 2012 was 83 percent, according to a new report from America’s Promise Alliance. That’s several percentage points above the national average and continuing a pattern of steadily increasing graduation rates for the state.

But graduation rates turn out to be closely tied to the income of students’ families. Virginia’s low-income students have a markedly lower graduation rate – 72 percent – than the 88 percent rate for other students.

This 16-point “income gap,” as researchers call it, puts Virginia in the middle of the pack nationally, not at the head of the class. The state is tied with West Virginia and behind Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Indiana’s income gap was the smallest; Minnesota’s was the largest.

While Virginia has made strides since last year, increasing graduation rates two percentage points for economically disadvantaged students, surely we can do better.

If we aspire to build on this progress – and we should, since a better educated workforce would have many social and economic benefits for the state – proven strategies can propel us down the right path.

Early childhood education programs like the Virginia Preschool Initiative lead to higher graduation rates and other benefits that last a lifetime, including a reduced need for public assistance, lower chances of committing a crime, and higher earnings. Smaller class sizes allow for increased attention to individual students – critical for those who face greater learning challenges – and also help achieve higher graduation rates. And Jobs for Virginia Graduates (JVG), a program that provides extra resources for at-risk and disadvantaged youth, such as leadership and academic skill-building, career planning, and job search training, significantly improves graduation rates. A recent proposal to double state funding for JVG over the next two years so it can serve more students is a positive step.

Virginia prides itself on providing an excellent education for its students. But, for the good of all of us, the state can’t rest on its laurels if less advantaged students continue to be left behind.  

–Hope Richardson, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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