Highest Graduation Rates by State & Metro Counties

Jan 03, 2023

by United Way NCA

At United Way, we see firsthand how much a quality education can have a major lifelong effect on the lives of children in their communities. That’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to achieve accurate counts in the 2020 Census in order to receive proper funding, and why we continue to elevate education for middle school students throughout the region.

It’s also the foundation of one of our programs, the Middle School Success program, which seeks to provide 12,000 low-income Title 1 middle schoolers with the academic, social, and emotional support along with the leadership development and skill-building training they need to thrive in high school. A high school diploma allows youths to pursue their dreams and live healthy lives, ultimately paving the way for more growth in the community as a whole. 

This issue is particularly important to us at United Way of the National Capital Area because, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, fewer high school students in the greater Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. area finish high school on time, when compared to national averages. In Washington D.C. alone, schools report some of the lowest graduation rates in the country.

What Affects Graduation Rates?

There are many factors that contribute to this issue. The challenges presented to D.C. public schools, often populated with low-income families who may face barriers such as housing instability, are not uncommon for metropolitan areas. And we’re proud to report that improvements have shown promising results: for example, increasing teacher pay to improve retention and ensure high-quality education. We are proud to support this work at United Way of the National Capital Area to increase Washington D.C.’s high school graduation rate. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing education reshaped across the DMV. As educators are working to pivot to high-quality lessons online, students are also shifting toward a new normal. Many face a lack of broadband access and other difficulties learning at home. The spring semester is a particularly bittersweet time to be home from school. For seniors, graduating is a huge accomplishment, and many are uncertain about the state of the proms and ceremonies they’ve been looking forward to for months.

In light of all this, we decided to conduct a larger study exploring what graduation rates look like in the various counties that comprise metropolitan statistical areas nationwide in order to determine which “metropolitan” counties have the highest graduation rate by state. We also looked at a metric that demonstrates how education improves quality of life: the impact of a high school degree on child poverty. 

Read on to discover what we found!


Using data from County Health Rankings and the National Center for Children in Poverty, we analyzed the highest high school graduation rate of counties that were a part of an MSA with at least 75,000 residents in every state. We did this to demonstrate highly successful student retention in urban/metro areas, and compare them state by state. 

Then, to quantify one impact that graduating from high school can have, we calculated the difference in child poverty when parents graduate high school in every state. This data is represented by the heat map below. 

Metro Counties with the Highest Rates of Graduation

US map showing the county with the highest graduation rate by state

Overall, it is impressive how many of these counties maintain a very high graduation rate. It is not an easy feat, and the work of the school district and the community should be celebrated. Over 20 of these counties have over 95% graduation rates, and 80% of them have graduation rates of over 90%. 

Some of the highest graduation rates we’d like to call out are in Falls Church County, which is part of the Arlington/Alexandria, VA metropolitan statistical area, and right in our backyard here in D.C. This county maintains a 100% graduation rate. 

Two other counties with perfect high school graduation include Oldham County, which is a part of the Amarillo, TX metropolitan statistical area, and Howard County, which is a part of the Grand Island, NE metropolitan statistical area. 

It is important to note here that while we are comparing the counties with the highest graduation rate in every state, Washington D.C. is the only county within the territory known as the District of Columbia. This makes a comparison with other states with multiple counties difficult, so be sure to keep that in mind when interpreting the data. As discussed above, this is an ongoing issue that we work hard at United Way of the National Capital Area to address. 

There are many factors that go into high school graduation rates by state, including demographics, economics, and more. There are also many benefits of having obtained a high school degree, including higher income, and various social benefits. One benefit we decided to dive deeper into involves a generational impact: how can obtaining a high school degree affect your future child? 

How Graduating High School Affects Your Child’s Poverty

US map showing how graduating high school affects child poverty rates by state

The National Center for Children in Poverty tracks child poverty rates, comparing children whose parents have a high school diploma to those who do not. The above map demonstrates the difference in child poverty levels when parents obtain a diploma. 

In nearly every state, completion of high school graduation has significant decreases in child poverty levels. This includes everywhere from -30% in Alaska to -8% here in Washington D.C. From this data, we can glean that in 49 states, obtaining a high school diploma decreases your future child’s poverty rate by 11% or more. 

How to Make an Impact on Graduation Rates

United Way NCA will continue to support students on their journey to high school graduation. If you’re just as passionate about helping kids walk across the graduation stage, check out our volunteer initiatives and programs and get involved.

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