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The first in a series examining progress and disparities in New York City schools, this Spotlight post focuses on trends in high school graduation and college enrollment. To understand students’ pathways through high school and into postsecondary education, this analysis follows students who began 9th grade in a NYC high school in a given year and tracks their progress over time. We start with students who entered 9th grade in 2000 and were scheduled to graduate high school in 2004, and end with students who began 9th grade in 2014 and were scheduled to graduate high school in 2018.[1] For each cohort, we are able to look at students’ outcomes as a whole and broken down by race and neighborhood income. This paints a rich picture of how students’ prospects of graduating and successfully transitioning to college have changed in New York City over the last decade and a half.

Slide 1 reveals dramatic improvements in New York City’s overall high school graduation rate, from 54 percent in 2004 to 80 percent in 2018. This represents a nearly 50 percent increase, and translates to about 23,000 more students graduating on time each year. Dropout rates steeply declined during this period. Transfers out of the system also went down.

College enrollment rates improved during this time as well, though not as dramatically (we are able to follow fewer cohorts of students for college enrollment and persistence—see footnote 1). Between 2006 and 2017, the percentage of NYC students who earned a high school diploma in four years and enrolled immediately in college increased from 42 to 58 percent. Notably, the increase in college enrollment was driven almost entirely by rising high school graduation rates. When we look at the proportion of high school graduates who enrolled in college, that number has held relatively steady: 73 percent of on-time graduates went right into college in 2006; 74 percent did so in 2017.

The proportion of NYC students who enrolled and then stayed in college for at least two years increased as well (from 31 percent of the students scheduled to graduate high school in 2006 to 39 percent in 2015). The rate of increase, however, was less steep than that seen for high school graduation or college enrollment.

In addition, our analyses demonstrate large disparities associated with students’ race/ethnicity and neighborhood income. Black and Latino students had the fastest growth in high school graduation rates of any of the subgroups we looked at (see Slide 2). As a result, the gap in high school graduation between Black and Latino students and their White and Asian peers narrowed from about 25 percentage points in 2004 to about 15 percentage points in 2018.

Racial disparities in college enrollment were larger and more persistent, as shown in Slide 4. For example, in 2006, about 32 percent of Latino students graduated on time and enrolled immediately in college, compared with 63 percent of Asian students. By 2017, immediate college enrollment for Latino students had grown to about 51 percent, compared with 77 percent of Asian students—meaning the gap had shrunk, but only a little, from 31 to 26 percentage points. (See Slide 4.) The differences associated with race/ethnicity are even starker if we focus on enrollment in four-year institutions (see Slide 6).

Slides 3, 5, and 7 present high school graduation, college enrollment and Bachelor’s enrollment rates for students with different levels of neighborhood poverty. We see similar (if less pronounced) patterns as those associated with race/ethnicity.

The overall improvements seen in New York City’s high school graduation and college enrollment rates represent a marked departure from previous decades. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, only about half of all NYC students earned a high school diploma. Beginning in 2000, however, the landscape of high schools in the City began to change. The NYC Department of Education closed many large, low-performing high schools; opened new small schools; and expanded high school choice throughout the district. As shown in Slide 8, the number of high schools nearly doubled between 1999 and 2010, while their average size was cut almost in half.

This period also saw a growing emphasis on helping students successfully transition to college. The NYC DOE and the City University of New York both worked to develop and scale up programs designed to improve college access. Many high schools began working with nonprofit community partners in efforts to help students build skills they would need to reach and thrive in college. In 2016, the NYC DOE launched College Access for All, a district-wide initiative that eliminated the CUNY college application fee for low-income students, made the SAT exam available to juniors free of charge, and sought to promote a “true college-ready culture” across NYC high schools. These policy changes, at the high school and college level, raise important questions for future research, some of which are highlighted below.

Big Questions:

  • Which policies and practices have been most responsible for the overall growth in high school graduation rates during the last 15 years? There is evidence that the opening of new small high schools and performance-based high school closures both improved student outcomes. The role of the high school choice process is harder to assess, although there are indications that, by sorting students on the basis of prior achievement (and by extension access to resources), the choice system may be amplifying pre-existing inequalities. (See our Better Evidence brief for a summary of the research on NYC’s sweeping high school reforms.) Studies that examine the impact of recent changes to the high school choice system (e.g., the elimination of the limited unscreened admissions option) will be essential to inform future policy decisions.
  • Moving forward, what strategies, at the secondary and post-secondary level, hold the most promise for helping historically underrepresented students reach and succeed in college?
  • What other measures—beyond high school graduation, college enrollment and persistence—are important for evaluating whether NYC students are making a successful transition to adulthood?


This post was authored by James Kemple, Chelsea Farley and Kayla Stewart. 

This series was published in Spring 2019.



High school graduates include all students who earned a Local, Regents or Advanced Regents diploma within four years (including those who graduated during the summer following their fourth year of high school). College enrollment captures students who graduated on time and enrolled in either a two- or four-year college by the following fall. Persistence rates include college enrollees who were continuously enrolled in post-secondary education for two years or more.

[1] Note that for college enrollment and persistence outcomes, we do not have data for students who entered high school in 2000 and 2001. In addition, because we have to follow students for a longer period of time to assess their college enrollment and persistence outcomes, we do not yet have this information for the most recent cohorts of students. We present the most recent data available. 

What else should we be asking about high school graduation and college enrollment rates? Let us know via email.


How to Cite this Spotlight:

Kemple, J., Farley C., and Stewart, K. 2019. "How Have  NYC’s High School Graduation and College Enrollment Rates Changed Over Time?" Spotlight on NYC Schools. Research Alliance for New York City Schools.