Is it Cool to Stay in School?

NDPC/N Commentary, Published: September 20, 2013

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Take a look around social media sites, blogs, microblogs, discussion boards, etc. and you will see numerous discussions on the merits of staying in school. Particularly heated can be arguments on attending and completing college. But even the merits of staying in and completing high school are being questioned by many youth. OnYahoo! Answers and other sites, you’ll see questions such as “Why is school so boring?” and “Should I drop out of high school?” There is even a wikiHow titled “How to Drop Out of High School: 9 Steps (with Pictures).” Recently, a young Hollywood star with quite a few followers tweeted, “If Everybody In The World Dropped Out Of School We Would Have A Much More Intelligent Society.” Web sites throw up the same list of famous actors and celebrities who made it big despite dropping out of high school; however, it is interesting to note that many of those on the list would not recommend dropping out of high school and many of them went on to earn GEDs or even honorary higher education degrees. Some even went back for high school diplomas after they became famous.

The National Dropout Prevention Center encourages a healthy discussion, particularly if such a discussion will lead to better understanding of why students drop out of school and a better understanding of how to make more evident to youth the value and efficiency involved in completing a formal education. We especially welcome the student voice and students’ participation in these discussions. However, any discussion should begin with some facts:

  • The average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of $20,241, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (PBS, Frontline, “By the Numbers: Dropping Out of High School”). That’s a full $10,386 per year less than the typical high school graduate, and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree. Young people should think of the impact of that related to living in poverty and all of the hardships that come with poverty over a lifetime.
  • 68% of America’s state prison inmates do not have a high school diploma (http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/ascii/ecp.txt), not only bad for these individuals, but extremely costly in many ways to society.
  • High school dropouts have increased incidents of multiple health-related programs, including higher rates of alcoholism, heart disease, obesity, and smoking. Just looking at Medicaid spending alone, cutting the number of high school dropouts in half nationally would save $7.3 billion dollars a year (again, just in Medicaid spending; Alliance for Excellent Education, “Well and Well-Off: Decreasing Medicaid and Health-Care Costs by Increasing Education Attainment”).
  • There are social programs to help dropouts and others struggling but these programs are costly. Are these after-the-fact treatment solutions the best use of taxpayer dollars over the long term if through strategies to help students complete high school, we could take a preventative approach and nearly obliterate this basic problem? Also, if our nation’s high schools could increase graduation rates to 90%, this would yield $1.8 billion in local, state, and federal taxes based on $5.3 billion in higher wages, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education (see this AP article). Young people might do well to consider the other uses of taxpayer dollars if basic necessities and support for high school dropouts were no longer needed in such quantity. And this is only Medicaid spending; there are many other areas (health and welfare related especially) where savings would result if the population were better educated.
  • Most high school dropouts do not have the alternative option of quality home schooling or quality self-education, due mainly to a lack of resources. Many high school dropouts are the children of high school dropouts, which can compound the issue for them regarding removing barriers to success. There are certainly excellent alternatives to formal education and some youth thrive in these instances, but as the statistics above show, many, many do not thrive.

All of this is not to say that alternative routes to becoming educated and becoming a productive and fulfilled member of society are not possible. However, care must be taken not to assume if something is good for a few, it must be good for all. Youth who may not see the value in formalized education might better understand the issue if they were to spend a day or so with someone who does not know how to read, write, or perform basic calculations. Illiteracy and lack of education comes with significant barriers to functioning in today’s complex society. Consider the skills involved in creating and following a budget or filling out any kind of application. There are significant and real struggles that many face due to lack of education.

Idealism vs. reality: these are the things with which teenagers often wrestle and The National Dropout Prevention Center encourages youth to continue to question, but also to ground their conclusions in reality.

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Several important and key questions for school teachers, counselors, and administrators, as well as policymakers, should be:

  • What is the basis for the notion that too many youth hold that school has little to no value?
  • Why is one of the four most common reasons stated for dropping out, “I didn’t see the value in the schoolwork I was asked to do?” (A Proven Solution for Dropout Prevention: Expanded Learning Opportunities)
  • What framework and strategies can be put into place to help students connect what they learn in school to their daily choices and actions as well as the skills and knowledge they will need later in life?
  • Are the goals of formal education aligned with the expectations of students, parents, and society and are the metrics to determine academic success aligned with those goals?
  • How can we make each school activity and experience more clearly related to students’ out-of-school choices and outcomes as well as aligned with the goals related to expectations of students, parents, and society?
  • How can we really engage youth to become lifelong learners who not only question the status quo, but investigate the facts sufficiently, make conclusions based on those facts, and value every opportunity for learning?