The Cost of Dropping Out of School

“Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”  Have you ever heard this saying?  It certainly mirrors the fact that American teenagers present us with large issues to tackle. With toddlers, we worry about temper tantrums and not sharing. With teenagers, we worry about depression, drugs, sex, gangs, school, and the quality of their friends. All of these issues can be overwhelming, and sometimes adults take the road of “putting their head in the sand” or ignoring the signs they see, because, to be honest, they just don’t know how to deal with it. They think, perhaps the teen is just going through stage, or maybe they need to figure things out for themselves. But what is the cost of ignoring the problem? In many instances, ignoring a problem in the teen years leads to much bigger problems in the adult years. One such instance? School.

A new report out by the Alliance for Excellent Education states the nation’s economy would have benefited from almost $335 billion in additional income if the high school students that dropped out of the Class of 2009 had graduated. Over $292,000 is the cost incurred by taxpayers for each dropout over their lifetime in terms of lost earnings and therefore lower taxes paid and higher spending for social costs including incarceration, health care, and welfare.

Approximately 7,000 high school students drop out every school day, which translates to one in three students. A recent report, released by a coalition of leading national and regional education, advocacy, and social service groups, is titled, “Consequences of Dropping Out of High School: Joblessness and Jailing for High School Dropouts and the High Cost for Taxpayers.” The report found some disturbing trends for youth to consider before dropping out of school:

  • Dropouts become incarcerated at a shocking rate: 23 of every 100 young Black male dropouts were in jail on any given day in 2006-07 compared to only six to seven of every 100 Asian, Hispanic or white dropouts. Male dropouts of all races were 47 times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers of a similar age who had graduated from a four-year college or university.
  • Dropouts suffer from unemployment as a much higher rate than graduates: 54 percent of the nation’s dropouts ages 16 to 24 were jobless on an average month during 2008, and 40 percent of all young dropouts in the country were jobless for the entire year. Black dropouts experienced the highest jobless rate at 69 percent, followed by Asians at 57 percent. In sharp contrast, only about 13 percent of young adults with a college degree were jobless on average in the same time period.
  • Dropouts do not get paid as well as graduates. The mean annual earnings of the nation’s young people with a bachelor’s or advanced degree were $24,797 in 2007, three times higher than the mean earnings for dropouts of $8,358. Nearly 37 of every 100 dropouts live in poor or near-poor families.
  • Dropouts are more likely to be single mothers.

So, school is not one of those problems that adults should ignore. How can we prevent it?  First, it’s important to understand that the decision to drop out of school does not happen overnight; it comes after years of frustration and failure. Students who are at-risk of dropping out show signs of pulling away from school long before they actually drop out – they miss classes, skip school, do not complete homework, get low grades and engage in disruptive behavior. Second, several strategies can be used to try to help youth who are demonstrating these signs. The National Dropout Prevention Center and America’s Promise Alliance both indicate that students need support in several areas to be successful:

  • Caring adults – Whether that means family involvement or mentoring / tutoring, youth need to have positive role models that care about their lives.
  • Community service opportunities – Having an impact on the larger community promotes personal and social growth and appears to have a positive impact on students in all grade levels. Plus, if kids are busy with volunteerism they have less time to engage in negative behaviors.
  • Safe places to use their time constructively – After-school programs, school sports, and summer enhancement programs inspire interest in a variety of areas and provide the activities needed to build self-esteem, affect personal development and offer supervision. These types of programs appear to be especially important for students at risk of school failure.
  • Effective education – Kids need quality learning environments that use a broad range of media for learning. Technology and customized instructional programs are effective ways of building a youth’s success. Tutoring and homework assistance are essential for a struggling youth, as well as guidance to help them find the skills and tools necessary.
  • Healthy start – Youth need good nutrition, exercise and healthy skills and habits. Youth in particular should be learning how to care for themselves through cooking, budgeting, job searching and other vital life skills to be successful and responsible.

In the best case scenario, parents and other family members are providing these critical resources to kids. In those instances where family is unable to satisfy these needs, there are many youth programs that can fill in the gap. Middle Earth is a nonprofit in New Jersey that offers these resources and works very hard to partner with youth to prevent dropouts and prepare them to become responsible adults. If you live outside New Jersey, contact your local United Way to find out what youth programs are offered in your area.

Everyone benefits from increased high school graduation rates. Graduates themselves, on average, will earn higher wages and enjoy more comfortable and secure lifestyles. They live longer, are less likely to be teen parents, and are less likely to commit crimes, rely on government health care, or use other public services such as food stamps or housing assistance. At the same time, the nation benefits from their increased purchasing power, collects higher tax receipts, and sees higher levels of worker productivity. Studies have shown that young people who return to school can reverse these trends, so a message of “it’s never too late” would definitely be in order in these instances.

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