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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