Since the mid-20th century, concern in the United States has escalated about students who leave the formal education system before completing at least a high school diploma. Recent high school dropout rates are often described as a “crisis,” particularly in big cities, where the figures may be as high as 50 percent. Nationally, a common statistic is that around 30 percent of those who start high school never complete a regular high school diploma, although different methods of calculating the rate yield dramatically different estimates. The numbers also vary substantially by gender, socioeconomic status, and ethnic background.
Still, a large share of dropouts—upward of 50 percent—do eventually attain a high school-level credential, most often by completing the general education development (GED) credential. Since the 1970s, the percentage of young adults earning GEDs has gone up, statistically offsetting a small rise in the dropout rate during the same period. But GED preparation often is not as rigorous as ordinary high school curriculum, and experts do not consider it a true equivalent to earning a high school diploma.
Reasons for Concern
Most often the problem of dropping out is cast in economic terms. In the eyes of many sociologists and economists, the link between years of education and personal earnings is irrefutable, at least in aggregate statistics. Extending this logic, people who do not reach a certain level of education are relegated to the least desirable and lowest-paying jobs. A range of ideas have been put forward to explain why this is the case. For example, some consider education particularly important due to the rise of so-called knowledge work in white-collar jobs. Whatever the reasons, dropping out appears to drastically reduce chances for upward economic mobility; it is a decidedly negative factor in the U.S. opportunity structure—a factor all the more troubling because it disproportionately affects minority groups.
A related line of thinking ties education to U.S. competition in the world economy. Many people believe the U.S. education system plays a central role in ensuring the country’s economic strength; the country cannot “afford” to have undereducated workers. Valid or not, this is an enduring argument and produces characteristic calls to increase both the quantity and quality of general education.
Historically though, rationales for formal education were not all economic. The public school movement of the 19th century emphasized education’s role in shaping an informed public. Education was perceived as a requirement of a healthy democracy. Another argument for compulsory education was to protect children from exploitative labor, and a related motive, to prevent adults from losing their jobs to low-wage young workers. At different times religion has also been a stimulus to education, as has the general wish for a “liberal” or well-rounded education. All these ideas are notable in their relative absence from the contemporary framing of school dropouts.
Research on Dropouts
Because the issue has held such a high profile, a large amount of research has been done on this subject. Much of this work attempts to identify subgroups of students who are likely to drop out, along with combinations of factors that increase or decrease their chances of doing so. Four themes emerge in the research:
- Social integration: the relationships that a student has with teachers, other students, and administrators.
- Academic engagement: the practices and norms of being a student, such as enjoying school, getting good grades, having good study skills, and participating actively. This might also mean having the “cultural capital” to know how to negotiate the arbitrary rules of school and behave in ways teachers expect.
- Family background: attributes like socioeconomic status, the student’s household composition, parents’ interest in and support for schooling, and the general nature of the student’s home life.
- Personality factors: self-esteem, self-confidence, aspirations, sense of commitment, and whether the student feels in control and effective in life.
Each of these areas can have positive or negative effects on the chances of dropping out, and they may be closely intertwined. Students might be singled out for disciplinary actions because they are perceived as disruptive (low academic engagement), but the initial reason for the behavior might be lack of interest shown by the teacher (low social integration). Eventually this can lead to students being “pushed out” of school, where the “dropout” is effectively expelled or given onerous terms of attendance. No generally accepted explanation accounts for all these factors. In fact, most studies are quite specialized; social psychologists tend to look at personality issues, while economists and sociologists are more likely to study income inequality, school resources and management, and family patterns.
One issue drawing increased attention is the phenomenon of “stopping out,” when students leave school for a spell but then return and finish at a later time. Sometimes those who go on to earn a GED are included in this category, and to understand the full picture, one must consider how students use adult education and community college programs either to complete a diploma or to embark on a vocational track. Less studied than dropping out, this pattern involves many of the same factors. Experts believe that employment among low-income students is a common reason for stopping out.
While college dropout rates have not drawn as much attention, research supports many of the same types of explanations at the postsecondary level. Parental factors are still important, and new problems arise concerning student finance since, unlike in public high schools, college students usually must obtain funding for tuition and possibly living expenses. Keeping exact statistics on college-level dropouts is also more complicated because multi-institution attendance is almost the norm; in this case figures like the percentage of 25-year-olds with a college degree can be more informative than a given institution’s graduation rate.
- Alexander, Karl L., Doris R. Entwisle, and Nader S. Kabbani. 2001. “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Early Risk Factors at Home and School.” Teachers College Record 103:760-822.
- Knesting, Kimberly and Nancy Waldron. 2006. “Willing to Play the Game: How At-Risk Students Persist in School.” Psychology in the Schools 43:599-611.
- Orfield, Gary, ed. 2004. Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
- Stearns, Elizabeth and Elizabeth Glennie. 2006. “When and Why Dropouts Leave School.” Youth & Society 38:29-57.
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