College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Out of School And Unemployed

By Richard M. Freeland & Joseph M. Tucci — September 03, 2003 7 min read
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right America must intensify its efforts to stem the dropout tide.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 holds the promise of transforming American education, in large measure by providing new resources and holding schools accountable for the success of their students. Leaders in business, education, and government who pushed for the legislation’s enactment must now support efforts in each state to deliver on this promise.

As we do so, however, we must also focus the nation’s attention on the fact that a great many young Americans have already been left behind, and that a great many more are at risk of being left behind in the years to come. America is experiencing an enormous student-dropout crisis. While its scale has received scant public recognition to date, this dropout crisis is generating one of the most vexing social and economic challenges of our time: the rapidly growing number of young people who are both out of school and jobless. These are young people who have, in large measure, dropped out of life and into idleness. If the nation is to achieve its educational and economic goals, we must confront this challenge with the same level of vision, focus, and energy that led to passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

First, we must acknowledge the magnitude of the challenge. The nation’s governors were well aware of the dropout problem’s significance back in 1989, when they gathered with the first President Bush for a summit on education and boldly committed themselves to the goal of achieving a 90 percent high-school-completion rate by 2000. Last year, wanting to learn how far the nation had come toward reaching that goal and having seen widely varying estimates of high school dropout rates, the Business Roundtable commissioned the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston to examine a wide array of data on estimated school dropouts, including the U.S. Department of Education’s “status dropout rate.” The results of this examination, released in May, are sobering indeed and should command the attention of leaders across the nation.

The report concludes that the Department of Education, hampered by a lack of full reporting of accurate dropout data by the states, has been unable to compile a complete accounting of the situation. Relying instead on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s survey of households—a respected, national endeavor, but one that simply was not designed to measure how many students fail to complete high school—the department has greatly underestimated the magnitude of the nation’s dropout rate. In stark contrast to its estimate of a dropout rate hovering around 11 percent, the report’s authors, Andrew Sum and Paul Harrington, the director and the associate director, respectively, of the Center for Labor Market Studies, estimated that somewhere between 25 percent and 30 percent of America’s teenagers, including many recent immigrants, fail to graduate from high school with a regular diploma, and that the incidence of such dropout problems has not diminished over the past 20 years. Moreover, dropout problems tend to be more severe among men than among women (in both the nation and in every state and large public school district); are greater among African-Americans and Hispanics than among whites; and are particularly acute in many of the nation’s large central cities.

What’s most disturbing about this trend is how high school dropouts are faring in the contemporary economy. Other research findings by the center reveal that today, nationwide, a stunning 5.5 million young men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 are both out of school and jobless, and 2.2 million of them are high school dropouts. This translates into 15 percent of the nation’s population in this age group.

Without work or access to jobs-skills training and employment programs, these young people are statistically more likely to engage in petty crime and gang activity, give birth without being married, and suffer from drug dependency. Dropouts also contribute little to the tax revenues of federal and state governments and receive a flow of cash and in-kind transfers that far outweighs their tax contributions over their lifetimes. Male dropouts represent substantial shares of our nation’s jail and prison population, cash- transfer recipients, and absent fathers. At a time when they should be acquiring the kinds of knowledge and skills that can lead to a lifetime of productivity and opportunity, these disconnected youths have instead developed severe skills deficits that can lead to a lifetime of dispossession, especially in the contemporary, high-skills-based economy.

If the United States hopes to ensure an adequate supply of workers in the future, we need to do a much better job keeping track of how young people are faring.

This is a crisis for the nation and our economy. During the 1990s, employers struggled to find the well-educated, highly skilled workers they needed to keep the economy growing. The problem was particularly acute in the Northeast, where, were it not for a major influx of immigrants, the size of the labor force would have suffered catastrophic shrinkage. Stagnant growth in the labor supply means constraints on future economic growth. In such a context, the nation simply cannot afford to have some 5.5 million young adults remain idle year in and year out.

If the United States hopes to ensure an adequate supply of workers in the future, especially at a time when the baby boom generation is aging, we need to do a much better job keeping track of how young people are faring, and of keeping more of them in school and engaged in their studies through graduation. The finding that 30 percent of young Americans don’t receive a high school diploma suggests that a whole new set of educational and work-related recovery strategies is needed. We must, for starters, give the Department of Education the tools it needs to better track the dropout rate. Congress should mandate that all states collect and report to the federal government uniform, high-quality dropout data as a condition for federal funding for all programs that assist primary and secondary education.

For young children in school, the No Child Left Behind Act wisely requires that they be tested in the basic skills of reading and math beginning in the 3rd grade. Educators tell us that student performance on basic skills in the 3rd grade is a major predictor of future educational success: Children who cannot read well at this point are far more likely to become dropouts eventually. It is imperative that we test all children at this critical time to find out who is struggling and needs extra attention. The new law also requires annual testing through the 8th grade. That’s also important, because the basic-skills gap that begins in the 3rd grade will widen each year—right through high school—unless we undertake extra efforts to help struggling students improve their reading, writing, and math skills.

Such testing does show promise, but it comes too late for the 5.5 million disconnected young adults who are already out of school, out of work, and maybe out of luck. We need to develop a national strategy that will enable us to reach out to these young Americans, give them a second chance to acquire basic academic skills, and provide them with the means to enter the mainstream job market. An array of research studies reveals that one of the most effective ways to accomplish this is through programs that give young trainees opportunities for hands-on work experience while also strengthening their basic literacy proficiencies and developing skills tied to specific occupations.

It is time for our civic leaders to place this challenge higher on the nation's agenda.

The harder question, of course, is where the resources will come from to support the kind of comprehensive, nationwide commitment that is needed to reach all of our displaced and disconnected youths, especially during this period of international strife and budget deficits. The answer may emerge when the nation’s business, government, and education leaders realize that our long-term economic vitality depends on getting more of these young Americans back on a route toward opportunity. An investment in our young now will pay enormous dividends—for us and for them—in the future. It is time for our civic leaders to place this challenge higher on the nation’s agenda.

Richard M. Freeland is the president of Northeastern University in Boston. Joseph M. Tucci is the president and chief executive officer of EMC Corp. and the chairman of the Business Roundtable’s education and workforce task force.

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