High school completion programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

High school completion programs, also known as dropout prevention programs, provide students at risk of dropping out with additional supports. These may include mentoring, counseling, vocational or social-emotional skills training, college preparation, supplemental academic services, or case management. Such programs are frequently multi-service interventions and may include attendance monitoring, sometimes with financial rewards or sanctions. High school completion programs can undertake comprehensive changes to high school environments such as restructuring schools into smaller learning communities or offering alternative schools. Programs can be delivered in school or community settings and can focus on individual students or on entire schools with low graduation rates1, 2. As of 2022, 5% of 25- to 29-year-old Americans did not graduate from high school3.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased high school completion

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced absenteeism

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that high school completion programs increase high school completion rates. There are many types of high school completion programs; most types significantly improve outcomes when well implemented1, 4.

Many variations of high school completion programs are effective. Vocational training and alternative schools have been shown to increase high school completion rates by just over 15%1. Social-emotional skills training and college-oriented programming increase rates by at least 10%1, 5. Mentoring and counseling, supplemental academic services, school and class restructuring, multi-service efforts, attendance monitoring, and community service programs demonstrate increases of at least 5%, and case management efforts yield increases of 3.6%1. High school completion programs may also help reduce absenteeism, especially among younger students and males; however, additional research is needed to confirm effects on absenteeism6.

High school completion programs that deliver all intended intervention components and sessions planned for each student produce the best outcomes4, 7. Programs that support students in caring, personalized learning environments are more effective than less comprehensive interventions2, 8. High school completion programs have stronger effects when they intervene early and address multiple risk factors, although additional research is needed to inform best practices in this area9. Mentoring programs that begin at the start of high school or earlier and include supports and resources for mentors may be more effective7, 10.

When implementing high school completion programs, schools can seek community partners to provide mentors, services, and career exploration opportunities2. Including professional development can help teach staff new skills, integrate academic and vocational content, and address students’ problems more effectively2. Researchers recommend using data to understand who is at risk of not completing high school, such as with an early warning indicator system (EWIS)2. An EWIS can be used to help identify students who need additional support and better tailor services to students with more needs11, 12. Experts recommend that districts build broad consensus around the purpose of an EWIS, test that potential indicators are related to outcomes using their own data, and carefully set and adjust thresholds for intervention over time11.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: supported by strong evidence.

There is strong evidence that high school completion programs have the potential to reduce disparities in academic achievement by increasing high school completion rates1, 4. Students who are Hispanic, Black, or Native American graduate from high school at lower rates than students who are white or Asian3. The types of high school completion programs, combined with student and context characteristics, may determine how high school completion programs affect minoritized students’ academic success16.

Students with disabilities are less likely to graduate than peers without disabilities17. For students with disabilities, school engagement is strongly associated with staying in school; conversely, being placed in a restrictive educational environment is associated with a lower likelihood of graduating17. More research is needed on high school completion programs for students with emotional or behavioral disorders18.

A wide range of factors may be related to dropout rates, including adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), making students repeat grades, and discrimination19, 20, 21. Research often describes risk as a quality of a student, their family, or their school (i.e. “at-risk students”). Experts note that “risk” is better understood as a product of interactions between the student and their contexts; a more nuanced understanding of risk can support interventions that address contexts (i.e. the classroom, school, family, or community) directly22.

Experts suggest that efforts to prevent school drop-out should include increasing access to many services both in school and in the community, including mentoring, additional academic assistance, behavioral interventions, basic needs programs, family support services, college preparation counseling, and more2.

What is the relevant historical background?

Disparities in educational opportunities in the U.S. are shaped by many factors, including a long history of racial segregation in schools. The public school system in the U.S. continues to be highly segregated and schools in different neighborhoods have vastly different resources available since school financing largely depends on local property taxes. Discriminatory housing, lending, and exclusionary zoning policies have entrenched racial residential segregation, reduced local property values, and concentrated poverty23, 24. Students of color, especially Black, Hispanic, and Native students, are much more likely to attend school districts with high poverty rates and fewer resources than white students25.

Student absenteeism is one of the primary factors that drives high school drop-out rates. Students are absent from school for many reasons. For example, students cannot attend when they are sick, and in some cases, they may also have to miss school to care for a sick sibling when parents do not have sick days, flexible work arrangements, or affordable alternative childcare arrangements. Housing instability, evictions, and homelessness can also force students to miss school. In some cases, students refuse to attend school to avoid bullying and violence. Other students are absent when they do not feel that school is a worthwhile place for them26. Students of color, students living in poverty, students from single-parent families, students with limited English language skills, and students with disabilities are more likely to be chronically absent26.

Equity Considerations
  • Who is at risk of dropping out of school in your community? What factors, such as external influences like the need to work a job or internal influences like hostile or discriminatory learning environments, are increasing their risk?
  • How can your community better understand who leaves school and why? Are there community or non-profit organizations you could partner with to help understand risk factors and enhance high school completion program resources and opportunities?
  • Which schools in your community have students at risk of dropping out? What resources are available to support programs for these students?
  • Who is making decisions about allocating school support resources for students at risk of dropping out in your community? How could you involve parents, students, and other stakeholders and strategic partners in those decisions?
Implementation Examples

Colorado and Florida have specified Offices of Dropout Prevention within their State Departments of Education to support local implementation of dropout prevention programs13, 14.

The What Works Clearinghouse offers best practices for implementing dropout prevention programs2. The National Dropout Prevention Center also shares best practices, implementation and training guides, and other resources for each of the 15 strategies identified as effective for dropout prevention15.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

NDPC-Resources - National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC) at Clemson University. Resources.

IES WWC-Rumberger 2017 - Rumberger R, Addis H, Allensworth E, et al. Preventing dropout in secondary schools. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), What Works Clearinghouse (WWC); 2017.

CCASN - College & Career Academy Support Network (CCASN).

Check and Connect - University of Minnesota. Check & Connect: A comprehensive student engagement intervention.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 CG-HS Completion - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). High school completion programs.

2 IES WWC-Rumberger 2017 - Rumberger R, Addis H, Allensworth E, et al. Preventing dropout in secondary schools. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), What Works Clearinghouse (WWC); 2017.

3 NCES-Young adult education - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Educational attainment of young adults.

4 Campbell-Wilson 2011 - Wilson SJ, Tanner-Smith EE, Lipsey MW, Steinka-Fry KT, Morrison J. Dropout prevention and intervention programs: Effects on school completion and dropout among school-aged children and youth: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2011:8.

5 Dougherty 2017 - Dougherty D, Sharkey J. Reconnecting Youth: Promoting emotional competence and social support to improve academic achievement. Children and Youth Services Review. 2017;74:28-34.

6 Tanner-Smith 2013 - Tanner-Smith EE, Wilson SJ. A meta-analysis of the effects of dropout prevention programs on school absenteeism. Prevention Science. 2013;14(5):468-478.

7 Powers 2017 - Powers K, Hagans K, Linn M. A mixed-method efficacy and fidelity study of Check and Connect. Psychology in the Schools. 2017;54(9):1019-1033.

8 Christenson 2004 - Christenson SL, Thurlow ML. School dropouts: Prevention considerations, interventions, and challenges. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004;13(1):36-39.

9 Freeman 2015 - Freeman J, Simonsen B. Examining the impact of policy and practice interventions on high school dropout and school completion rates: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research. 2015;85(2):205-248.

10 Heppen 2018 - Heppen JB, Zeiser K, Holtzman DJ, et al. Efficacy of the Check & Connect mentoring program for at-risk general education high school students. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. 2018;11(1):56-82.

11 Pierson 2020 - Pierson A, Frazelle S, Mazzeo C. Adapting and using early warning indicators in different contexts. Teachers College Record. 2020;122(140302):1-24.

12 Knight 2023 - Knight DS, Duncheon JC, Andersen K, Frizzell M. Do early warning systems help high school students stay on track for college? Mixed methods evaluation of the Ninth Grade Success Initiative. Educational Forum. 2023;87(4):377-403.

13 CDE-Dropout prevention - Colorado Department of Education (CDE). Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-Engagement.

14 FLDOE-Dropout prevention - Florida Department of Education (FLDOE). Office of Dropout Prevention.

15 NDPC-Strategies - National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC) at Clemson University. 15 effective strategies for dropout prevention.

16 Giraldo-Garcia 2019 - Giraldo-García RJ, Galletta A, Bagaka’s JG. The intersection of culture and institutional support for Latino students’ academic success: Remediation or empowerment? Journal of Latinos and Education. 2019;18(1):68-80.

17 Foreman-Murray 2022 - Foreman-Murray L, Krowka S, Majeika CE. A systematic review of the literature related to dropout for students with disabilities. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth. 2022;66(3):228-237.

18 Sullivan 2016a - Sullivan AL, Sadeh S. Does the empirical literature inform prevention of dropout among students with emotional disturbance? A systematic review and call to action. Exceptionality. 2016;24(4):251-262.

19 Hughes 2017 - Hughes JN, Cao Q, West SG, Allee Smith P, Cerda C. Effect of retention in elementary grades on dropping out of school early. Journal of School Psychology. 2017;65:11-27.

20 McWhirter 2018 - McWhirter EH, Garcia EA, Bines D. Discrimination and other education barriers, school connectedness, and thoughts of dropping out among Latina/o students. Journal of Career Development. 2018;45(4):330-344.

21 Ianchini 2016 - Iachini AL, Petiwala AF, Dehart DD. Examining adverse childhood experiences among students repeating the Ninth Grade: Implications for school dropout prevention. Children & Schools. 2016;38(4):218-226.

22 Reschly 2020 - Reschly AL. Dropout prevention and student engagement. In: Reschly AL, Pohl AJ, Christenson SL eds. Student Engagement. Cham: Springer; 2020.

23 Braveman 2022 - Braveman PA, Arkin E, Proctor D, Kauh T, Holm N. Systemic and structural racism: Definitions, examples, health damages, and approaches to dismantling. Health Affairs. 2022;41(2):171-178.

24 EPI-Rothstein 2014 - Rothstein R. Brown v. Board at 60: Why have we been so disappointed? What have we learned? Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute (EPI); 2014.

25 Knight 2022 - Knight DS, Hassairi N, Candelaria CA, Sun M, Plecki ML. Prioritizing school finance equity during an economic downturn: Recommendations for state policy makers. Education Finance and Policy. 2022;17(1):188-199.

26 NBER-Guryan 2020 - Guryan J, Christenson S, Cureton A, et al. The effect of mentoring on school attendance and academic outcomes: A randomized evaluation of the Check & Connect program. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2020: Working Paper 27661.