Dropping out of high school has serious long-term consequences not only for individuals but also for society. According to expert estimates, between 3.5 million and 6 million young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are school dropouts. Lowering the number of adolescents who fail to finish high school and helping those who drop out get back on track must be a major policy goal for our nation. In this policy brief we focus primarily on how best to provide youngsters who have dropped out of school a second chance, though we also give some attention to dropout prevention (we do not tackle the topic of high school reform more broadly). Several carefully evaluated program models hold out promise that they can help both young people at risk of dropping out and those who do drop out. These promising programs must be expanded and continually improved, and we offer specific proposals for doing so. U.S. policy must aim to keep as many young Americans as possible in high school until they graduate and to reconnect as many as possible of those who drop out despite educators’ best efforts to keep them in school.
Just how costly is school dropout? Americans who do not graduate from high school pay a heavy price personally. Although correlation is not causation, the links between leaving school before graduating and having poor life outcomes are striking. Perhaps the most important correlation is that between dropping out and low income. Based on Census Bureau data (from 1965 to 2005), figure 1 compares the median family income of adults who dropped out of high school with that of adults who completed various levels of education. Two points are notable. First, in 2005, school dropouts earned $15,700 less than adults with a high school degree and well over $35,000 less than those with a two-year degree. Over a forty-five-year career the earnings difference between a dropout and someone with only a high school degree can amount to more than $700,000. Considered from a broader social perspective, the income-education pattern illustrated by figure 1 shows that school dropouts contribute substantially to the problem of income inequality that is now a growing concern of researchers and policy makers.
Dropping out of school is also linked with many other negative outcomes such as increased chances of unemployment or completely dropping out of the workforce, lower rates of marriage, increased incidence of divorce and births outside marriage, increased involvement with the welfare and legal systems, and even poor health. All these outcomes are costly not only to dropouts personally, but also to society. Prison costs, for example, are among the most rapidly growing items in nearly every state budget, and more than two-thirds of state prison inmates are school dropouts, though many obtain a General Educational Development (GED) credential while in prison. Similarly, in 2006, 67 percent of all births to young dropouts were outside marriage, compared with 10 percent of births for women with a master’s degree. Because families with children born outside marriage are five or six times more likely to live in poverty than married-couple families, it follows that they are also more likely to be on welfare. In both these examples, dropping out is linked with social problems that impose large public costs on the nation.