While Washington Fiddles, U.S. Dropouts Burn

A U.S. debt crisis threatens to paralyze our government and disrupt the global economy.  But despite all the political posturing, the impasse will end sooner or later. 

What won’t end – and regrettably will get far worse due to budget cuts and falling revenues – is a high school dropout that is both discouraging and depressing.  Each year nearly four million kids begin ninth grade.  Nearly 1 million of them don’t make it to graduation. That’s nearly one out of every four students fail to graduate. A fifth of schools identified by the U.S. Department of Education are identified as “dropout factories,” where no more than 50 percent of students graduate.

The impact of the decision to leave school is lifelong, not only for the dropout but for every taxpayer. Dropouts are more likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, become teenage parents, live in poverty and commit suicide. Dropouts cost federal and state governments hundreds of billions of dollars in lost earnings, welfare and medical costs, and billions more for dropouts who end up in prison. Estimates of these costs run as high as 320 to 350 billion dollars.

Despite the staggering rate and associated costs, these rates may be conservative. They certainly are not accurate. Part of the problem is that every state has had a different definition for dropout. For example, in some states, students who leave school aren’t counted as having dropped out if they enroll in adult education classes like night school or in a GED program. The U.S. Department of Education says GED recipients should be counted as dropouts – but few states and school apply the rule. Okay, you might argue, who cares how the student gets educated as long as they continue in school.

But get this? Students who did drop out because they go to prison aren’t counted either. Very few school districts count kids who are incarcerated — even in juvenile justice facilities. Some schools don’t think they should be held responsible if a kid quits school because he gets in trouble with the law.

Responsibility in this case equates to funding. It’s not in the interest of schools to have an honest, accurate account of dropouts — not just because a high dropout rate makes a school look bad, but also because there’s serious money at stake. Most schools get funded based on attendance. If kids don’t show up, schools lose money.

Some schools “fudge” the numbers by taking attendance at 10 a.m. rather than 8 a.m. – if kids show up at all, they come in late and would be counted absent if attendance was taken at the start or end of the day. A late roll call counts tardy students as present.

Why should employers care? The unemployment rate for dropouts right now is anywhere from 15 to 18 percent, double what it is for high school graduates. That’s an enormous financial burden on society and government which ultimately is paid for by mostly business taxes.  Possibly worse, dropouts in the future will essentially be unemployable, lacking even the most basic skills required to do even the simplest jobs.

So while all attention and theatrics is focused on the debt crisis, a high school dropout catastrophe simmers that will boil over if business, government, and the public don’t soon acknowledge the problem and begin to do something about it.


Ira S Wolfe