New Data Emphasizes the Challenges Students Experiencing Homelessness Face in Graduating High School

By Matthew Atwell, Senior Researcher at Civic, a partner of the Education Leads Home Campaign

On March 26, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education released data on high school graduation rates for the 2018-19 school year, revealing an all-time high of 85.8 percent. This marks a slight increase from the 85.3 percent graduation rate for the class of 2018. Encouragingly, the rate of gain for most student subgroups outpaced the national average’s increase of 0.5 percentage points, helping to close equity gaps for historically underserved communities.

For the second year in a row, the U.S. Department of Education did not release a national graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness due to missing data from one state. Cohort counts from 49 states and the District of Columbia, however, show a national graduation rate of 67.7 percent, up slightly from 67.5 percent in 2018.

The data show that graduation rates for students experiencing homelessness differ significantly state to state, ranging from a low of 49 percent in the District of Columbia and Minnesota, to a high of 86 percent in New Hampshire. The significant discrepancy of graduation rates across states bears added scrutiny.

At 67.7 percent, the graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness is among the lowest of all students in the country. Similarly, an increase of 0.2 percentage points is the smallest gains of any subgroup in the class of 2019, emphasizing the challenges students experiencing homelessness face that go above and beyond conventional poverty. To this point, the graduation rate for low-income students reached 80 percent for the first time, a rate 12.3 percentage points greater than that of students experiencing homelessness.

Importantly, this marks the final year of data prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing an important baseline to understand the virus’ impacts. It is likely that the economic crisis spurred by the pandemic has increased homelessness. Yet, new survey data indicate fewer students experiencing homelessness are being identified and enrolled by schools, with significant unmet needs remaining for these children and youth.

Thankfully, the recent American Rescue Plan Act provides dedicated funding to support the identification, enrollment, and full participation of students experiencing homelessness. With the right supports, these students can graduate at the same rate as their peers. Across the country, there are emerging success strategies that schools and districts can implement to better serve these students.

The Education Leads Home campaign has a goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness by 2030. While the slight increase in 2019 marks progress, the nation will have to redouble its efforts to reach this goal, especially as families and youth deal with the challenges of COVID-19. Doing so will build a more equitable education system and work to break cycles of intergenerational poverty and homelessness.