Programs and Policies to Assist High School Dropouts in the Transition to Adulthood

By Bloom, Dan | The Future of Children, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Programs and Policies to Assist High School Dropouts in the Transition to Adulthood


Bloom, Dan, The Future of Children


The transition to adulthood is likely to be perilous and rocky for young people who drop out of high school. In fact, even those who earn a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate face increasingly long odds of success if they do not go on to get at least some postsecondary education or training. Young people from low-income families are substantially less likely than their higher-income peers to move smoothly through school, making it much more difficult for them to earn family-sustaining wages and, potentially, to reach other adult milestones such as marrying.

Through a variety of school reforms beginning in preschool and running through high school, U.S. educators are working to prevent young people from getting off track. For the foreseeable future, however, the nation will also need "second-chance" systems and programs to re-engage and re-direct young people who leave the public school system. The research record on the effectiveness of such programs is fairly thin and the results are mixed, but there are some positive findings on which to build. Moreover, the individual and social costs of neglecting this problem are potentially enormous.

I begin by describing the magnitude and consequences of the dropout problem, with a particular focus on the heterogeneity of the dropout population. Next, I describe what researchers know about the effectiveness of programs designed to assist young people who leave school before graduation, focusing mainly on how the programs affect participants' educational attainment and labor market outcomes. I conclude with some recommendations for policy and research that would build on the current evidence base to expand and improve effective programs for dropouts while simultaneously developing and testing new approaches that might be more effective and strengthening local systems to support vulnerable young people.

The Magnitude and Consequences of the Dropout Problem

National studies estimate that 3.5 million to 6 million people between the age of sixteen and twenty-four are high school dropouts-meaning that they have not earned a high school diploma and are not now enrolled in high school. (1)

Dropouts come disproportionately from low-income and minority families. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the share of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds who are out of school and lack a diploma or GED is 4 percent in the highest income quartile and 17 percent in the lowest quartile. Similarly, the dropout rate is 6 percent for whites, 12 percent for blacks, and 20 percent for Hispanics. (2) Moreover, the dropout problem is heavily concentrated in a subset of high schools that are themselves concentrated in large northern and western cities and in the South. (3)

Experts disagree about how to calculate high school graduation rates. Surprisingly, they even disagree about whether the national dropout rate has been rising or falling in the past thirty years and whether racial disparities in graduation rates have been declining or growing. (4) It seems clear, however, that over this period several developments have amplified the negative consequences of dropping out of school. First, well-documented changes in the labor market have dramatically reduced the availability of well-paying jobs for young people, particularly young men, without postsecondary education. Adjusted for inflation, the earnings of young men with no high school diploma dropped 23 percent between 1973 and 2006 (the earnings of young men with only a high school degree dropped about the same percentage). (5)

Even before the current recession began, growing numbers of young dropouts were entirely disconnected from both school and work. More than half of all sixteen- to nineteen-year-old high school dropouts had no paid employment in 2007. Declining employment among dropouts is one symptom of a broader collapse in the youth labor market. …

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