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High school graduation rate tops 78 percent – highest since 1976 (+video)

Some 78.2 percent finished in four years, graduating in spring 2010, a new report found Tuesday. Grim economic conditions and the need to be competitive in a crowded job market played a role.

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Public high school students are graduating at the highest rate since 1976, motivated in part by grim economic conditions and the need to be competitive in a crowded job market.

More than 3.1 million high school students received their diplomas in spring 2010, with 78.2 percent finishing in four years, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported Tuesday. The rate is a 2.7-percentage-point increase over the previous year, and those two rates are the highest since the 75 percent rate in 1975 and 1976.

The report does not analyze for causes, but education officials say the increasing rate can certainly be linked to the struggling economy.

"If you drop out of high school, how many good jobs are there out there for you? None," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in an Associated Press interview published Tuesday.

This was not the case 10 or 15 years ago, he said.

"When I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, it wasn't great, but I had lots of friends who dropped out, and they could go work in the stockyards or steel mills, and they could buy a home, support a family, do OK," Secretary Duncan said.

With an average annual salary of $20,241, high school dropouts earn $10,386 less than high school graduates, who earn $30,627, according to Census Bureau data.

The need for young people to be competitive in the job market is increasingly important, especially as part-time jobs and internships available to students are decreasing, says Donna Harris-Aikens, director of education policy and practices at the National Education Association.

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