School Dropout Rates Add To Fiscal Burden Nearly 1 million kids who start high school every year don't make it to graduation. At a time when federal and state budgets are tight, dropouts costs taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue, health care, welfare and incarceration costs.

School Dropout Rates Add To Fiscal Burden

School Dropout Rates Add To Fiscal Burden

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Nearly 1 million kids who start high school every year don't make it to graduation. At a time when federal and state budgets are tight, dropouts costs taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue, health care, welfare and incarceration costs.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This week NPR will be airing a five-part series on America's dropout crisis. To give you an idea of what that means, just under four million kids begin ninth grade every year, but about a fourth of them don't make it to graduation. That's almost a million dropouts every year. According to one estimate, from the American Council on Education, there are currently 40 million Americans who never graduated from high school. That is an enormous cost for them as individuals, for the rest of society.

NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez is here to talk to us about the series.

Claudio, the school dropout situation, that's not new. Why focus on it now?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The genesis of this series, Linda, began with the reporting that NPR has been doing on the economy. Everybody is hurting, but for people without a high school diploma, the numbers are staggering in terms of unemployment, lost earnings and cost to taxpayers.

It wasn't that long ago, remember, that if you dropped out of high school you could still manage to find a good job. But today, the people who seem to be hurting the most in our sputtering economy are dropouts.

WERTHEIMER: So it's a cost to individuals of income?

SANCHEZ: A high school dropout, according to the latest statistics, will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime, and almost a million dollars less than a college graduate. The unemployment rate for dropouts right now is anywhere from 15 to 18 percent, double what it is for high school graduates. It represents just an enormous loss of human potential.

WERTHEIMER: What about the cost to taxpayers?

SANCHEZ: Well, that's pretty staggering as well. There are estimates of anywhere from 320 to 350 billion dollars to taxpayers. That's in lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare, incarceration costs. We spend a lot of money on these kids.

One other interesting statistic. The vast majority of dropouts today are Latinos and blacks. Now, if high schools were to raise the graduation rate of both these groups to the level of whites - white kids graduate at about 82 percent, so there's an assumption that it is a 10-15 percent dropout rate - personal income for blacks and Latinos would add more than $310 billion to the economy. That is serious money.

WERTHEIMER: So, is the dropout problem getting worse because of the economic downturn?

SANCHEZ: I think the answer is yes. But it depends on who you talk to, or whose data you rely on. The data can be easily manipulated. In 2007, when the economic downturn began, the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reported that nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts were unemployed or not in the labor force. In our reporting we have found that dropouts 25 years and older, for example, often want to come back to get a GED - which is the closest thing to a diploma - but most give up because their reading and math skills are so poor. Many say it's probably not worth coming back and they would rather wait till they're 62 to live on Social Security. Also, one interesting trend is that more and more companies, big and small, won't even consider you if you don't have a high school diploma or a GED. And according to a couple of labor market studies, six out of 10 jobs today require at least two to four years of college.

WERTHEIMER: So, did you find anything as you talk to people around the country that suggests that there is some kind of a solution to the dropout crisis?

SANCHEZ: I don't know if there's a solution, a big solution out there, but, yes, there are many examples of some communities, some cities and states that have done some good things. Chicago is a good example. It has created a network of 22 charter schools that literally rescue the youngest dropouts, some directly from jail. These kids are getting a second chance to improve their reading, writing and math skills; learn a skill and how to apply for a job.

But again, in this economy, there aren't any jobs and the few that are being creating are essentially going to people who are unemployed but with college degrees. The long-term answer, Linda, according to experts, is to intervene early and identify children at the risk of dropping out in the elementary and middle school grades. What we found in Baltimore was that the city has put a lot of time and effort in reducing both the truancy and absenteeism rate. And it claims that it has reduced those rates by half in the last three years. It's a school system that has invested a lot of time and energy in placing psychologists, social workers into some of the poorest schools, especially in East Baltimore. And they're having some degree of success. They're also getting tough on truancy, on absenteeism, where, you know, the city can fine parents $50 or they can essentially put some of these parents in jail, if necessary.

So, it's a tough answer but something that absolutely needs to happen to get at this question of a solution to deal with this problem is just to be able to get a handle on the data. The data right now is so unreliable, so useless because states essentially collect their own data and most of those states don't really have a good way to come up with accurate estimates. And so, if states ever get a handle on the data, I think it will go a long ways towards really solving this problem, because people will know what we're up against.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Claudio Sanchez. His series on dropouts begins tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. It will also be on MORNING EDITION. Claudio, thank you.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

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Series Overview: The Cost Of Dropping Out

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.