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Published: May 18, 2011


Students who withdraw from school or college without completing graduation requirements for reasons other than enrolling in another school or college. More than 10% of American high school students and one-half of all college students drop out every year. Two thirds of all high school dropouts come from the low-ability, GENERAL EDUCATION track. “Not interested in school,” is the most frequently reason cited by students for dropping out. Nearly 43% of those who dropped out from the tenth to twelfth grades said they did not like school, and 38% said they left because they were failing. Nearly 27% of all female dropouts cited pregnancy as the reason; this figure climbed to 34% among black females and 31% among Hispanics but was only 26% among whites. Less than 8% of male dropouts said they left school because they became fathers. Marriage was cited as a reason for dropping out by 15% of white students and 13% of Hispanic students but only 2% of black students.
Drop-out statistics are notoriously inaccurate, however, collected as they are by individual states, whose federal education grants are dependent on the success of their public school systems. Figures compiled from each of the states show the national drop-out rate having peaked at 14.6% in the 1970s and then slipping to 11% in 1992, when about 380,000 students dropped out of high school. In the ensuing years, however, the official rates remained relatively intractable, with about 400,000 high school students, or 10.7% of total enrollment, dropping out in 2005, according to reports from each of the states. But Texas and Florida fail to count students who drop out, if they say they intend to earn high school equivalency diplomas or to continue their education in adult education courses. Florida nonetheless had the highest drop-out rate in the nation, 44%, followed by Georgia and South Carolina, with rates of 43%. Texas reported a drop-out rate of only 6.2%, but the true figure is estimated to be closer to 36%.
Drop-out rates among Hispanics have long been the highest, ranging, by all counts, between 30% and 35% during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and only easing to 27% in 2001. In the meantime, official black drop-out rates dropped from a peak of about 23% to only 10.9% during that time, while drop-out rates of white children fell from a peak of more than 15% to only 7.3%. Drop-out rates present semantic as well as statistical problems, however, because many students who do not physically leave school nonetheless fail to graduate but are nonetheless retained on class rolls, thus minimizing the statistical effect of dropouts. The Manhattan Institute, a policy research group, prefers using the GRADUATION RATE. The institute’s studies of state-by-state graduation rates found that only 72% of the nation’s female high-school seniors and 65% of males graduated with diplomas in 2003. Only 59% of African-American girls and 48% of African- American boys graduated in 2003, while graduation rates for Hispanics were 58% for girls and 49% for boys—all far higher failure rates than the pure drop-out rates.
Regardless of which statistics are used, the economic consequences of dropping out (or not graduating) were startling. Nearly 30% of all high school dropouts experience periodic unemployment, although long-term unemployment rates during the prosperous years since 2000 hovered between 7% and 10%. The median annual income of those who find work is about $25,000 for men and $20,000 for women, compared with about $35,000 and $25,000, respectively, for men and women with a high school diploma or equivalent. For the nation as a whole, the cost of the more than 500,000 high school dropouts is nearly $200 billion a year in economic losses, according to economists. A high school dropout earns about $200,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate, thus depriving federal, state and local governments of about $60,000 in taxes, or $50 billion a year for all 23 million of the nation’s high school dropouts between the ages of 18 and 67, the average retirement age. Those consequences are not irreversible, however. Every state offers a High School Equivalency Testing Program, or GENERAL EDUCATIONAL DEVELOPMENT (GED) for adults who have not completed a formal high school program. After completing appropriate adult education or home-study courses and obtaining a passing score in each of five tests, the student receives a high school diploma that serves as a valid “equivalent” to a conventional diploma as a qualification for thousands of jobs and for admission to many two-year and four-year colleges. Also ameliorating the impact of dropping out in some communities is the growing willingness of colleges to accept students without high school diplomas. Indeed, many such colleges have established special academic programs for high school dropouts that automatically grant students a high school diploma along with their associates degrees when they complete two years of combined college/high school courses. By 2008, nearly 400,000 students without high school diplomas were enrolled in college, accounting for 2% of all college students, 3% of community college students and 4% of commercial college students. As many as one-third of the students at some two- and four-year colleges had no high school diplomas.
Many educators trace the drop-out phenomenon to poor reading skills. Indeed, studies show that students beginning high school with low reading proficiency are 20 times more likely to drop out than classmates with average or superior reading skills. As a result, a growing number of schools across America are setting up programs to target middle schoolers—especially those overage for their grades—and group them together with students their own age in classes designed to improve their reading skills. By “reconnecting” them with their age-mates, the programs remove the stigma of sitting in a class with and often performing more poorly than younger students. Once regrouped into a class of their age mates, the students begin an accelerated curriculum that combines classroom work, with no more than 15 students in a class, and after-school tutoring (and emotional support) to help them catch up and eventually finish school. By 2005, drop-out prevention programs were in place in middle schools and high schools in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, New York and Philadelphia. Cleveland’s pioneering Options Complex worked with 175 overage students in three schools; Philadelphia opened three high schools for overage students; and Cincinnati’s nine-year-old program for overage middle schoolers boasts three classes of 15 to 18 students each, in which 95% complete an accelerated program that allows them to enter high school with students their own age.
The COLLEGE drop-out phenomenon differs substantially from that of the high school, given the entirely voluntary nature of college attendance and the adult status of college students. About 45% of college students drop out of four-year colleges without completing the work required for their degree. Unlike the student abandoning high school, the college dropout is not precluded from re-enrolling at a later date—often years later—and finishing his or her work, but the economic consequences of dropping out of college are often as dramatic as those for high school dropouts. The median income of college graduates 25 years or older was about $56,000 for men and $41,000 for women in 2001, compared with median incomes of $41,000 and $30,400, respectively, for men and women who left college without completing their degree requirements.
One common aspect of the high school and college drop-out phenomena is the failure of the American education system to provide adequate VOCATIONAL EDUCATION for either secondary school students or high school graduates—a lack that forces millions of American youngsters to pursue studies in the sciences, humanities or business for which they have no aptitude. There are other factors driving the college drop-out phenomenon, however, the most far-reaching being the cultural and economic background of students. Lower-income students come from families of poorer educational and cultural backgrounds than upper-income students do, and high schools in low-income areas fail to prepare students for college as thoroughly as high schools in upper-income areas. Indeed, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found entering freshmen at 17 state university systems unprepared for collegelevel work. A study commissioned by the BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION found that 60% of white high school graduates, 78% of black high school graduates and 80% of Hispanic high school graduates were unprepared for college. Even worse, the National Center found 46 of America’s 50 state universities unaffordable for average American students and their family, let alone the economically disadvantaged. The result is that 40% of incoming freshmen at the 42 most selective universities in 2004 came from families making more than $100,000 a year, compared with 32% five years earlier, though fewer than 20% of American families earned $100,000 or more. And freshmen from the wealthiest 25% of American families, filled 55% of the seats in the 250 most selective colleges, both public and private. At some state universities, students from families in the bottom half of the income distribution spectrum make up less than 10% of undergraduates.