College & Workforce Readiness Explainer


By Lisa Staresina — August 03, 2004 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011.

A student’s decision to drop out of school has long-term consequences that can contribute to juvenile delinquency, welfare dependency, or, in the worst cases, prison.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the population segment of U.S. 16- through 24-year-olds who were not enrolled in school, or who did not have a high school diploma or a General Educational Development credential was about 11 percent in 2001. The economic value attached to completion of ever-greater levels of education has been well documented (e.g., U.S. Census Bureau, 2002).

In 2000, adults ages 25 to 34 who had dropped out of school or had not acquired a GED, earned up to 30 percent less than their peers who had completed high school or had GEDs. The gap widened when comparing the incomes of high school dropouts with those people with bachelor’s degrees. In 2000, male and female college graduates earned $42,292 and $32,238 respectively, while male and female high school dropouts earned $19,225 and $11, 583 respectively. (Wirt, 2002). But the value of a high school education cannot be measured in dollars alone. Rates of high-risk behaviors such as teen pregnancy, delinquency, substance abuse, and crime are significantly higher among dropouts (Woods, 1995).

The different methods of calculating and reporting dropout rates sometimes generate controversy. For example, a state may report one set of numbers suggesting a low dropout rate; then, a private organization might analyze the statistics using a different measure and accuse the state or school system of underestimating the problem. Here are different ways of calculating dropout rates:

Event Rate: This method measures the percentage of young adults ages 15 through 24 who dropped out during the school year preceding the data collection. This annual measure provides important information about how effective educators are in keeping students enrolled in school. The event rate is generally lower than the status rate (see below).

Status Rate: This method measures the percentage of young adults ages 16 through 24 who are not enrolled in school and who have not completed a high school diploma or obtained a General Educational Development credential or GED. Status rates reveal the extent of the dropout problem in the population, and are therefore used to estimate the need for further education and training designed to help dropouts participate fully in the economy and broader life of the nation.

Cohort Rate: This approach measures what happens to a group of students over a period of time. The rate is based on repeated measures of a cohort of students with shared experiences and reveals how many students starting in a specific grade drop out over time.

High School Completion Rate: This rate represents the proportion of 18- through 24-year-olds who have left high school and earned a high school diploma or the equivalent, such as a GED credential.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, “Dropout Rates in the United States: 2000.

Although the dropout rate overall has changed little over the past decade, there are great variances among racial and ethnic groups and geographical regions. Minorities tend to have higher dropout rates than their white classmates, hence, dropout rates in the South and the West tend to be higher than those in the Midwest and Northeast (Kaufman and Bardby, 2000). Those findings are reflected in 2002 graduation rates, as well. Both Hispanics and African-American students have significantly lower graduation rates (52% and 56%, respectively) than their white classmates (78%). (Greene & Winters, 2005).

The strongest predictors that a student is likely to drop out are family characteristics such as: socioeconomic status, family structure, family stress (e.g., death, divorce, family moves), and the mother’s age. Students who come from low-income families, are the children of single, young, unemployed mothers, or who have experienced high degrees of family stress are more likely than other students to drop out of school. Of those characteristics, low socioeconomic status has been shown to bear the strongest relationship to students’ tendency to drop out. In one study, for example, students of lower socioeconomic status had a dropout rate four times higher than that of students of a higher socioeconomic status (Alexander, Entwisle and Kabbani, 2001).

The tendency for students to drop out is also associated with their school experiences. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students drop out of school for the following reasons:

  • Dislike of school;
  • Low academic achievement;
  • Retention at grade level;
  • A sense that teachers and administrators do not care about students; and
  • Inability to feel comfortable in a large, depersonalized school setting (1999).

Research indicates that the lower the achievement level, the greater the likelihood that a student will drop out of school. For example, a study of students in Baltimore schools found that low test scores and report card grades as early as the 1st grade were a reliable predictor of whether or not the students would later drop out (Alexander, Entwisle and Kabbani, 2000). Grade retention—being “held back” or flunked—has also been found to be highly correlated with dropping out. Students who repeat a grade, even as early as kindergarten, have significantly increased chances of dropping out (Kaufman and Bradby, 1992).

According to a 2002 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, schools generally approach the dropout problem in three different ways. Schools tend to: provide supplemental services for needy students, offer different learning environments as an alternative to the regular classroom, or institute schoolwide restructuring efforts.

Those supplemental services include tutoring, social services, and counseling. Tutoring programs such as the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program place older students in tutoring positions with elementary school children. The aim of the program is to increase the self-esteem of youths deemed at risk by placing them in positions of responsibility. A review of the program found that 12 percent of the students in a comparison group dropped out of school, while just 1 percent of the program participants dropped out (Cardenas et al., 1992).

Alternative learning environments come in several forms, each designed to provide struggling students a different path they can take instead of dropping out. Districts may offer alternative classrooms within a traditional school, offering varied programs in a different environment; a school-within-a-school, with specialized education programs; or a magnet school, offering a focused curriculum in one or more subject areas (National Dropout Prevention Center, no date).

Partnership at Las Vegas (PAL) is an example of an alternative learning environment. The PAL program embodies the school-within-a-school concept that focuses on academic and career skills. At-risk 11th and 12th graders attend class four days a week and work at unpaid internships one day a week. In addition to covering the basics, the curriculum focuses the connection between school and work. PAL participants are far less likely than the control group to drop out of school. Two percent of the students who have gone through the PAL program dropped out, while 13.5 percent of the students in a comparison group became dropouts (GAO, 2002).

Some districts have restructured entire schools to combat the dropout phenomenon. Schoolwide restructuring usually occurs in schools with a majority of students at risk of dropping out. Under the Talent Development Model, one template for this approach, officials may restructure a school into smaller learning academies, create standards-based instructional programs, and put more emphasis on professional development. A three-year evaluation of five Talent Development high schools in Philadelphia found that in addition to achievement gains, schools that had implemented the model for two or more years saw their 9th grade attendance rates rise by 15 percent (Philadelphia Education Fund, 2002).

“Career academies,” another dropout-prevention strategy, offer career-focused curricula, team teaching, and involvement from the business community. An ongoing, 10-year evaluation of career academies found that, among other results, they significantly cut dropout rates of students at high risk of school failure (Kemple & Snipes, 2000).

Additionally, at the federal level, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 authorized the School Dropout Prevention Program. Its purpose is to provide three-year grants to states and school districts to assist in dropout prevention and school re-entry activities. Grantees must demonstrate the effectiveness of their proposed prevention and re-entry activities, based on scientific research.

Yet, as accountability and standards continue to dominate school policy, some experts say that more and more students may feel pressured to dropout. Under NCLB, all students must meet proficiency levels on state exams by 2014 and demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) up to that deadline. As evidenced by the Texas TAAS program, the state’s accountability system, on which NCLB is based, dropout rates overwhelmingly increased when the accountability reforms were enacted. Critics point to school officials encouraging under-performing students to leave school to pursue GEDs to help increase overall test scores for schools (Haney, 2001). According to an analysis conducted at the University of Chicago, low-performing students in states requiring graduation testing, prior to NCLB, were 25% more likely to drop out of school before graduation then were their counterparts in non-testing states (Jacob, 2000). It is for this reason that several policy analysts suggest making high school graduation rates a stronger component in the NCLB accountability system to encourage schools to prevent dropouts (Swanson and Chaplin, 2003).

Related Tags:

Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., and Kabbani, N., “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Part I, Profiling Risk Factors at Home and School,” Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 2000.
Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., and Kabbani, N., “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Early Risk Factors at Home and School,” Teachers College Record, 103 (5), 2001.
Cardenas, et al., “The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program: Dropout Prevention Strategies for At-Risk Students,” Texas Researcher, 3, 1992.
Greene, J.P., and Winters, “Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates 1991-2002,Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, February 2005.
Haney, W. “Revisiting the Myth of the Texas Education Miracle Lessons about Dropout Research and Dropout Prevention.” Lynch School of Education, March, 2001.
Jacob, B. “Getting Tough? The Impact of High School Graduation Exams,” The University of Chicago, June 2000.
Kaufman, P., and Bradby, D., “Characteristics of At-Risk Students in NELS:88,” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 92-042), 1992.
Kemple, J.J., and Snipes, J.C., “Career Academies: Impact on Students’ Engagement and Performance in High School,” Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., 2000.
National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, “Alternative Schooling Overview,” no date.
Philadelphia Education Fund, “Year Three of the Talent Development High School Initiative in Philadelphia: Results From Five Schools,” 2002.
Swanson, C.B and Chaplin, D., “Counting High School Graduates when Graduates Count: Measuring Graduation Rates Under the High Stakes of NCLB.” Education Policy Center, The Urban Institute, February, 2003.
U.S. Census Bureau, “The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings,” 2002.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education StatisticsDropout Rates in the United States: 2000,” no date.
U.S. Department of Education, “Taking Responsibility for Ending Social Promotion: A Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders,” 1999.
U.S. General Accounting Office, “School Dropouts: Education Could Play a Stronger Role in Identifying and Disseminating Promising Prevention Strategies” (#GAO-02-240), 2002.
Wirt, J., et al., “The Condition of Education 2003,” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 2003-067), 2003.
Woods, E.G., “Reducing the Dropout Rate,” Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, School Improvement Research Series, Close-up #17, 1995.

How To Cite This Article
Staresina, L. (2004, August 3). Dropouts. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from


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