Series Overview: The Cost Of Dropping Out

School's Out: An Overview of America's Dropout Crisis

Of all the problems this country faces in education, one of the most complicated, heart-wrenching and urgent is the dropout crisis. Nearly 1 million teenagers stop going to school every year.

The impact of that decision is lifelong. And the statistics are stark:

  • The unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma is nearly twice that of the general population.
  • Over a lifetime, a high school dropout will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate and almost $1 million less than a college graduate.
  • 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.

NPR is looking at the dropout crisis through the stories of five people. Three dropped out of school years ago. They talk about why they left school, the forces in their lives that contributed to that decision and its impact in the years since.

There are also profiles of two teenagers who are at risk of dropping out and the adults who are working hard to keep them in school.

Monday, July 25

Almost half a million black teenagers drop out of school each year. Most will end up unemployed by their mid-30s. Six out of 10 black male dropouts will spend time in prison.

Patrick Lundvick, 19, quit school in ninth grade. He started running with a gang and selling drugs in his Chicago neighborhood. Within a few years, he was in prison for theft. When he got out, he promised his mother he would change. He's now studying at a special charter school for dropouts and hopes to get his diploma and go to college. But he knows that having a criminal record has damaged his job prospects, and he admits that the lure of the streets is still strong.

Tuesday, July 26

The single biggest reason why girls drop out of school is pregnancy. And Latinas have the highest teen pregnancy rates of any racial or ethnic group; 41 percent of Latinas leave high school because they get pregnant. These young women often end up with few job skills, more pregnancies and dependency on unreliable and sometimes violent men.

Lauren Ortega, 20, is a mother of two who is struggling to finish her high school education. She is torn over whether to stay with the father of her children.

Tuesday, July 26

A fifth of the schools identified by the U.S. Department of Education as "dropout factories" (where no more than 50 percent of students graduate) are located in rural areas like Oconee County in South Carolina.

Nick Dunn, 16, hates school and is teetering on the edge of dropping out — just like his father and his four siblings did. But things have changed a lot since his father was young. Oconee County has watched its economy dry up and even adults are struggling to find work.

Wednesday July 27

Studies show that kids who miss a lot of school are at far higher risk of dropping out.

By the time he was 12, Danny Lamont Jones had already missed all of sixth grade and much of seventh. Now at 15, Danny is due to enter tenth grade next fall but isn't sure he'll go.

Officials in Baltimore are trying to intervene early with kids like Danny to try to keep them engaged with school and prevent them from ending up on an inevitable path toward dropping out.

Thursday, July 28

Sixty percent of the nation's high school dropouts are older than 40. Most of them left high school to start working, but few move beyond low paying, dead-end jobs. Only seven percent of dropouts 25 and older have ever made more than $40,000 a year. And in hard economic times, many find that not having a diploma puts them at the end of the employment line.

Kenny Buchanan, 44, was 18 when he gave up on high school. He figured he could earn a living without a diploma, and for several years, he did. But then he got married and found it difficult to find work that could support a family. Before long, employers began refusing to even interview him because he didn't have a diploma.

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