Every Year, One-Half Million Students Drop Out of School

Published November 1, 1997

Virtually guaranteeing for themselves a bleak future, almost 6 percent of the country’s 9.5 million youths aged 15-24 years dropped out of school in 1994-95 instead of successfully completing a high school program. According to a new government report to Congress, these one-half million dropouts a year join a pool of nearly four million young adults in the 16-24 age group–almost 12 percent of the population–who possess no high school diploma or GED and are not enrolled in high school. Thirty percent of Hispanics fall into this category.

“The economic consequences of leaving high school without a diploma are severe,” warns the report, Dropout Rates in the United States: 1995, released in July by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and authored by Marilyn M. McMillen, Phillip Kaufman, and Steve Klein. Likely consequences are lower earnings, a higher unemployment rate, and, for females, early pregnancy and single parenthood. Dropouts also are more likely to receive public assistance and are disproportionately represented among the nation’s prison and death row inmates.

Although male and female dropout rates–6.2 and 5.3 percent respectively–do not differ much from the overall 5.7 percent rate, dropout rates by income and by race show dramatic differences. Young adults from families in the highest 20 percent of all family incomes have only a 2 percent dropout rate, while students from the bottom 20 percent of income distribution have a 13.3 percent dropout rate, more than six times higher.

Hispanic students are almost three times more likely than white students to leave school before completing a high school program (12.4 percent vs. 4.5 percent). Although the 6.4 percent dropout rate for black students is only slightly above the overall dropout rate of 5.7 percent, a wide gap opens between blacks and whites in families with low incomes, where 35 percent of black youths are dropouts compared to 15 percent of white youths.

Among the four million young adults aged 16-24 who are not enrolled in school, 30 percent of Hispanics are dropouts, 12.1 percent of blacks, and 8.6 percent of whites.

The report notes that the 3.5 percentage point difference in dropout status for blacks and whites is substantially smaller than the difference of 10 to 11 percentage points observed 20 years ago. The report’s authors attribute the closing gap to “a more rapid rate of improvement for blacks than whites.”