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Panel Calls Dropouts '$20-Billion Challenge to Society'

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Washington--The nation's "at risk" students--the potential dropouts who without help may leave the system unprepared to lead productive lives--pose a $20-billion-a-year challenge to society that must be addressed, a group of business, labor, and education leaders concluded at a conference here this month.

The meeting, the first for the new Business Advisory Commission of the Education Commission of the States, an outgrowth of e.c.s.'s Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, reflects growing state and business concern over the dropout problem.

"If the states start generating something now, hopefully it will move up to the federal level," said Virginia's Gov. Charles Robb, the e.c.s. chairman. By the commission's estimate, state and local governments forego some $20 billion annually in unrealized productivity and tax revenue because of youth unemployment.

'Off the Edge'

Papers prepared for the conference estimated the nationwide drop-out rate at more than 25 percent. According to Samuel S. Peng of the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of 17- or 18-year-olds failing to graduate from high school rose from 24 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 1982.

Gordon Davies, director of Virginia's Council of Higher Education, reiterated the view of a growing number of educators that current reform mandates may worsen the dropout problem.

"We run the risk of having another group fall off the edge, not fulfilling itself and not fulfilling society," Mr. Davies said.

But Gordon Ambach, commissioner of education for New York, said he did not believe the reform movement would contribute to the dropout problem, "provided there are additional provisions on the equity side."

National Youth Service

Others, noting that the 18-year-old segment of the population is shrinking, said the time might be ripe for innovative solutions to the high-school dropout problem.

"It's a period of opportunities and problems--not of desperation," Governor Robb said.

New business-education partnerships and a voluntary national youth-service program were among the many possible solutions disussed at the conference.

A youth-service program was advanced by some participants as a transition from school to work for young people seeking to enter the nation's shrinking labor market. It would also help instill in them a sense of citizenship, said Frank Newman, president of ecs

'It's not simply a job program, an education program, or a training program," said Donald J. Eberly, executive director of the National Service Secretariat Inc. in Washington,who presented a paper on the topic. "It's all of those things."

But others, including T. Marshall Hahn, chairman of the board of Georgia Pacific, said that a national youth-service program "smacks of the traditional approach of throwing money at problems."--jrs

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