Hope for High School Dropouts: How Increasing Graduation Rates Will Transform Our Country

Are math and science killing our high school graduation rates?

More rigorous math and science requirements for high school graduation are in place. At the same time, dropout rates in this country are up.

Is this a coincidence?

Research back to 1990 showed that the US dropout rate rose to a high of 11.4 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses, compared with 8.6 percent for students who needed less math and science courses to graduate.

The dropout rate is up to 5 percentage points higher when gender, race, and ethnicity are considered.

Andrew Plunk, a postdoctoral research fellow in the psychiatry department at Washington University School of Medicine, says the study highlights that the one-size-fits-all approach to education requirements is not ideal due to various demographic groups, states and school districts that are all different.

When educational policies cause an unintentional consequence of an increase in students dropping out, the effects reverberate far beyond the classroom walls.

“Communities with higher dropout rates tend to have increased crime,” says Plunk. “Murders are more common. A previous study estimated that a 1 percent reduction in the country’s high school dropout rate could result in 400 fewer murders per year.”

Maybe this is all true. Maybe the high school dropout rate can be blamed on math and science courses.

However, I don’t feel like the answer is for schools to ease up on these requirements.

No, the key is to better prepare the students for these classes. These classes may be difficult, but life after high school is even harder.

Let’s raise our standards. Let’s start thinking about how we can help all students graduate high school.

Are we in the midst of a high school dropout crisis?

Doesn’t it seem like the phrase “high school dropout” is often accompanied with the word “crisis”? Depending who you ask, kids everywhere are giving up on education before they obtain a diploma and the situation has never been worse.

But is it that bad? Is the state of the high school dropout rate in the U.S. deserving of the “crisis” label? Let’s look at the facts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national dropout rate was 7 percent in 2011. The number is calculated by taking the number of 16 to 24-year-olds that are not enrolled in school and do not have a diploma, or a general educational development (G.E.D.) certificate. In 1990, that number was 12 percent so based on that criteria; the dropout rate has dropped in the past two decades. In fact, dropout numbers have been on the decline since 1970 when it was 15 percent.

Perhaps a more interesting stat is that the percentage of 16 to 24-year-old dropouts who were in employed in 1970 is the same as 2011 – 49.8 percent. As dropout rates have declined, the importance of finishing high school has increased in America. One big problem with the NCES dropout calculations is that they imply that a high school diploma and G.E.D. are equal when it comes to opportunities for earners. In reality, studies have found that G.E.D. holders earn about the same amount as dropouts long term.

Based on these numbers, it may seem like the high school dropout problem is much, much better than it was just a few decades ago. But consider that more jobs demand post-secondary education than back then and that today there are so many alternative options high school students have to finish their diploma outside the traditional classroom setting.

We’re not where we need to be yet. The dropout rate should be negligible at this point.

Who is dropping out?

In 1972, when the government started tracking the dropout rates for Hispanic students, over one-third of all Hispanic students dropped out of high school!

Today, that number is much lower—down to 13.6 percent—but this group still leads all races and ethnicities when it comes to young people out of school with no diploma or G.E.D.

A similar trend exists for black students. Black students dropped out at a rate of 29 percent in 1967 (the first year the group was tracked), and that number is down to 7 percent (the same as the national average) today.

White students had always held on to the lowest percentage of the dropout pie chart, even when their numbers represented a larger majority of total student populations. In 1967, 15 percent of white students dropped out of high school; today, just 5 percent do.

When it comes to gender, there has not been much differentiation when it comes to dropout percentages in over 40 years. There have been four years since 1972 when the rate for young men dropouts was noticeably higher than young women: 1974, 1976, 1978 and 2000.

As far as economic backgrounds, lower-income students have always been at a high school graduation disadvantage. In 2009, students from families in low-income brackets ran a risk of dropping out that was five times higher than high-income peers. Still, the future is not completely bleak for kids from disadvantaged economic environments. In 1975, low-income students dropped out at a rate of 16 percent, but that number now sits comfortably under 10 percent.

Household income is the not the only disadvantage many dropouts have, though. Students with learning or physical disabilities drop out at a rate of 36 percent. Overall, a student who does not fit the traditional classroom mold, or who falls behind for some reason, is more likely to lose motivation when it comes to high school and decide to give up altogether.

Why you should care about high school dropout rates

Let me be blunt: Dropping out costs money.

It costs the individual who drops out money. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that dropouts bring in just $20,241 annually, which is $10,000 less than high school graduates and over $36,000 less than a person holding a bachelor’s degree. The poverty rate for dropouts is over twice as high as college grads, and the unemployment rate for dropouts is four percentage points higher than the national average. In the end, the lifetime earnings of high school dropouts are $260,000 LESS than peers who earn a diploma.

It costs taxpayers money. An estimated half of all Americans on public assistance are dropouts. If all of the dropouts from the class of 2011 had earned diplomas, the nation would benefit from an estimated $154 billion in income over their working lifetimes. Potentially feeding that number is the fact that young women who give up on high school are nine times more likely to be, or become, young single mothers. A study out of Northeastern University found that high school dropouts cost taxpayers $292,000 over the course of their lives.

Did I mention that it costs taxpayers money? We’re not just paying for public assistance programs for dropouts—we’re paying to protect ourselves against them through incarceration. Over 80 percent of the incarcerated population is high school dropouts – making this an issue that truly impacts every member of the community. Numbers are higher for dropouts of color; 22 percent of people jailed in the U.S. are black males who are high school dropouts.

Imagine what would happen if we took the nearly $300K that taxpayers put in over the course of a dropout’s lifetime and deposited it into their K-12 learning upfront. If we invested that money, or even half of it, into efforts to enhance the learning experience and programs to prevent dropping out, what would that do to dropout, poverty and incarceration rates?

It’s not just about the money, though

Why graduating more students from high school helps us all thrive

Think of the quality of life experiences, we, as Americans, can enable for as many citizens of our country as possible. As it happens, when students graduate from high school, opportunities open up for them.

When students stay in school, they are more likely to value a career path over a job. Over 68 percent of high school graduates begin college coursework the following fall. Students who earn high school diplomas are that much more inspired to continue their academic journey and seek out a lifelong career match, not just clock hours at a “job” until retirement.

And the fulfillment people receive from a job they enjoy should not be underestimated. Studies have found that happier people are healthier and are even able to better fight off common illnesses like colds and the flu. Considering more time is spent working than in any other pursuit, job satisfaction plays a major role in overall happiness.

Job satisfaction aside, as a nation, everyone benefits from well-educated workers who earn a living in areas where they possess natural talent too.

Staying in high school also allows students to have valuable experiences. The childhood years go by so quickly, and high school represents the last stage before adulthood. The social opportunities that high school provides are not duplicated anywhere else except in college—and high school dropouts miss out on both. What’s more, high school dropouts tend to get into more trouble than their in-school peers. The National Dropout Prevention Center reports that 82 percent of U.S. prisoners are high school dropouts. The life lessons found in the later years of high school are more valuable than they get credit for and the peer-level socialization is a vital part of late-childhood development.

Finally, there’s much to be said about learning for its sake. In our material society, it is difficult to explain the intangible value of things like intellectualism, particularly to young people. Until greater value is placed on obtaining knowledge for no other reason than to broaden individual and societal wisdom, students will continue to drop out of high school.

After all, how can the economic importance of a high school diploma be explained to children who have never had to earn their living? Even those in dire socio-economic conditions do not have a grounded concept of what money means in the quality of life and long-term happiness.

Sometimes the best way for young people to learn about these abstract concepts is through experience. Going to school will teach all young people more than the subjects they learn at school.

How do we make sure kids stay in school?

Let’s go beyond telling kids to stay in school. Here we’ll look at the secret weapons we can use to solve this problem at a structural level.

As we learned at the beginning of this chapter, it’s not about loosening standards so that children can more easily finish school, but preparing people for the demands of the workforce.

Here’s what we can do to make sure we help students meet these high standards.

First of all, get the business community involved. The economic impact of high school dropouts cannot be denied. The nation as a whole will miss out on an estimated $154 billion in income over the lifetimes of the dropouts from the Class of 2011 alone. From a business perspective, this is a missed opportunity. There is money to be made and an economic boost is possible – but only if these students stick around long enough to obtain a high school diploma and potentially seek out college opportunities. Georgia is a great example of a state that has taken advantage of the business community to help improve graduation rates. Areas like Atlanta Metro have some of the strongest business leaders in the nation, and school officials have begun to call on them for guidance and funding when it comes to improving graduation rates.

The report Building a Grad Nation 2012 found that between 2002 and 2010, Georgia showed high school graduation rate improvement from 61 to 68 percent, in part because of involvement from the business community. In that eight-year span, the number of “dropout factories” (schools with 60 percent or lower graduation rates) fell from 1,634 to 1,550. Making graduation numbers an issue of economic stability, and having a backup from business leaders, is just one step toward reducing dropout numbers.

The next step is to look for support beyond the classroom. As discussed already, risk factors for dropouts include coming from low-income or single-parent families. Teachers simply cannot address the academic and emotional needs of every student within normal class time, so programs need to be in place for students who are at risk for dropping out. A pilot program in San Antonio called Communities in Schools has taken on this challenge by offering on-campus counseling services for students on the fence about dropping out.

The program offers a listening ear for whatever the students may need to talk about, from lack of food or anxiety about family financial woes. Of the students in the program in the 2012 – 2013 school year, 97 percent obtained a high school diploma instead of dropping out. While students can certainly talk about their studies, the main point of the program is not academic. It is simply a support system to encourage students who may be facing life obstacles to keep pushing forward to finish high school. These programs are often what students need to feel accountability toward the community as a whole and also worthiness for a high school diploma.

Another, perhaps surprising way to reduce the high school dropout rate is to prioritize early childhood education. Much of the attack on the dropout rate happens when teens are already at a crossroads. In truth, the learning and social experiences they have from birth influence their attitudes about education, society, and their lives. Perhaps the dip in dropout rates in the past four decades hinges on another statistic: from 1980 to 2000, the number of four-year-old children in the U.S. enrolled in preschool programs rose from half to over two-thirds.

But currently, pre-K learning is only an academic right (free of charge) in 40 states and 2012, total funding for these programs was slashed by $548 million. Instead of putting money where it belongs – upfront, at the beginning of a K-12 career – lawmakers could be contributing to a higher dropout rate, and economic cost, in future decades. It’s time to stop making the high school dropout issue something that is confronted at the moment; prevention, as early as pre-K learning, is a long-term solution.

It’s great that we know of possible solutions to the high school dropout crisis. Now it’s time to spread awareness of this issue, promote possible solutions, and implement them for the good of our country.




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