Dropping out of school in a postindustrial society comes with many risks. In the United States, as with most industrialized societies, education is a key factor for predicting social mobility; dropping out clearly undermines one’s prospects of moving up the socioeconomic lad der. Dropping out of high school is also accompanied by many other negative outcomes or consequences, including an increased propensity for subsequent criminal behavior, lower occupational and economic prospects, lower lifetime earnings, an increased likelihood of becoming a member of the underclass, lower levels of academic skills, and poorer levels of mental and physical health than non-dropouts.
In addition to the negative consequences for the individual dropout, areas with high concentrations of dropouts also suffer. Areas with higher concentrations of dropouts have decreased tax revenues, increased expenditures for government assistance programs, higher crime rates, and reduced levels of social and political participation. Given all of these negative consequences, what do we know about high school dropouts? Who are they? Why do they fail to complete high school?
Before answering any of these questions, we should first define dropout. This is not as easy as it might appear. Oftentimes, attempts to define high school dropouts and actually measuring this status in the many available data sources are at odds. In the purest sense, a high school dropout is anybody who fails to acquire a high school diploma. There are two major national studies that are often used to conduct research on high school dropouts, High School & Beyond (1980) and the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS, 1988). These two databases account for the lion’s share of what we know about dropping out of high school during the past two decades, but each data source has its own limitations. In High School & Beyond, dropouts are those students who drop out of school between the tenth and twelfth grades; this clearly misses a large number of dropouts who either leave school prior to the tenth grade (one estimate is that between 10 and 20 percent of dropouts leave school prior to the tenth grade) or those who are still in school in the twelfth grade, but eventually drop out. In NELS:88, high school dropouts are often defined as those who have left school during or after the eighth grade and still have not returned to school or acquired a high school diploma as of two years post the anticipated graduation date (a six-year window). NELS is far more inclusive, but still leaves some students out of the definition because they return to complete their high school diploma outside of the allotted window. Thus, while the abstract definition of a high school dropout is very clear, the actual measurement of who has, or has not, dropped out is questionable. To help clarify the various statuses, any number of terms have been applied, including “stopouts,” “dropouts,” ”early leavers,” and ”returnees,” just to name a few (Pallas 1986).
To further complicate matters, researchers often define high school dropouts differently than do educators. In some instances, educators actively track students who have left their school and do not include the student as a dropout if he or she enrolls in an alternative education or adult learning program. In other instances, educators do not track the student once he or she has left the school but classify the student as a dropout if that individual with draws from school and there is no accompanying request to forward the student’s academic record to another educational institution. Regardless of how it defines a student who has left school, it is often in the school’s best interest to record the lowest possible dropout rate since it is one measure of school quality. Somewhere in the midst of these various operationalizations lies the truth – those students whose educational careers fall short of acquiring a high school diploma.
Who Drops Out and Why?
It is not difficult to paint a portrait of the typical high school dropout. There have been a plethora of studies trying to determine who drops out (or does not). Racial and ethnic minority students – in particular blacks and Hispanics – are more likely to drop out than white students. Students of lower academic ability are more likely to drop out than are high ability students. Lower socioeconomic status (SES) students are more likely to drop out than higher SES students. Being older than one’s peers and/ or from a single headed household have also been linked to higher likelihoods of dropping out. Gender prominently factors into the drop out equation; teenage pregnancy is more likely to lead to dropping out for women, whereas acquiring a full time job has a greater increase on the likelihood of dropping out for men. Beyond demographics, researchers have also examined other individual level measures including student involvement in extracurricular activities and adolescent employment. Students who are more involved in extracurricular activities are less likely to drop out; students who work more than 20 hours a week during the school year have an increased likelihood of dropping out.
Many of these individual level effects were established by researchers in the 1980s and 1990s using a variety of theoretical models, including the participation identification model, the social control model, the rational choice model, various integration and process models, and zero sum models. During the past decade, various elements of social context have also been incorporated into theoretical models, including peer group, family, school, and community factors. In terms of family based explanations, parents’ level of education and/or occupational standing, select aspects of the home environment such as the availability of cultural capital resources, and the relevant social support system (e.g., social capital) have been found to significantly affect a student’s likelihood of dropping out. Students with parents or older siblings who are dropouts are at higher risk of dropping out, as are students with uninvolved parents.
More recent research further expands the boundaries of meaningful social context(s) by examining the school’s role in producing high school dropouts, as well as the influence of various neighborhood characteristics. Research has consistently found that school size, level of social integration or involvement within the school, resources, and various indicators of school climate all affect whether a student drops out of school. Studies have also shown that spatial/context measures such as higher dropout rates and greater rates of poverty have a disproportionate effect on an individual student’s likelihood of dropping out. The majority of studies examining school or community con text use some variant of opportunity theory, coupled with the assumption that adolescents are rational actors in the educational decision making process, to explain dropping out within a multilevel framework.
In summary, research to date has examined an exhaustive number of predictors of dropping out of school at the individual, familial, peer group, school, and community levels. Most of the aforementioned concepts can be thought of as “pushing” or “facilitating” factors. An alternative set of factors can be viewed as “pulling” or “attracting” measures. Previous research established that students often leave school early because they wish to obtain the status of various adult roles, such as mother or worker. These two findings are clearly gender related. For many young women, pregnancy is a key contributing factor to their decision to drop out of school; scholars contend that the attraction of motherhood draws young women out of school to start families. For many young men, the lure of full time employment is sufficient for them to prematurely terminate their education; this is especially true in impoverished neighborhoods where full time jobs are a rare commodity. The so called ”tipping point,” the point where school year employment becomes detrimental to a student’s chances of completing high school, seems to be approximately 20 hours a week. What distinguishes both of these effects (pregnancy and employment) from other pre-dictors is the strong possibility of a selection effect. In other words, the research clearly establishes these links, but there is disagreement on the direction of causality. Proponents of adolescent work contend that students who are already disengaged from school choose to work; opponents of adolescent work contend that greater than part time work draws otherwise engaged students out of school and into the workplace. Similar arguments are made concerning teenage pregnancy. Does the desire to assume adult roles come before or after the student’s disengagement from schooling? The truth is, we do not know, because studies have yet to systematically control for the student’s adult role orientation, making it impossible to draw a definitive conclusion.
Given what we know about the consequences of dropping out, and the major predictors, what is yet to be determined concerning high school dropouts? Future research should focus on one of four broad areas: defining and measuring dropout, disentangling early childhood attitudes and behaviors and determining their effect on dropping out, studying dropouts from non-public school settings, and addressing the long term costs and consequences of dropping out.
As for the first broad need, there are several specific tasks that should be completed. First, there needs to be a clearly articulated and widely agreed upon method of defining, and perhaps more importantly of measuring, dropout. Most previous research tends to define school dropout in relation to high school, but many students drop out of middle school and are not captured in most studies. Additionally, the category of “dropout” should be more fully refined to recognize that not all dropouts are the same. For example, there are dropouts who fail to acquire any further education, dropouts who return to get their high school diploma, dropouts who earn an equivalency certificate (e.g., GED), and drop outs who continue on to attain college or post graduate degrees. Future research should strive for better clarity when professing to study “dropouts” and address the subtle, but likely very important, differences across these groups.
The second broad need is to disentangle early childhood attitudes and behaviors, and to determine their effect on dropping out. Some preliminary research has examined how early childhood predictors such as attitudes toward school, exposure to delinquent behaviors, and early childhood parenting practices affect adolescent delinquency and drug use. This is a line of social psychological research that should be applied to dropping out of school since items such as early childhood school readiness, literacy, and elementary school experiences should be critical for understanding dropping out of high school. After all, dropping out often is the final step in a very long and gradual process of disengaging from school.
The third broad area where future research might prove fruitful is the investigation of dropouts from non-public school settings. To date, the lion’s share of research has focused on dropouts from public high schools. Research is clearly needed on who drops out of private schools (religious, non-religious, and alternative/charter schools), and why. As with most other educational processes studied during the last 40 or more years, there will surely be differences between public and private schools in this regard. The lack of current research on this matter seems to imply that dropping out of school is only an issue faced by public schools, and this is clearly not the case.
Finally, research should more clearly conceptualize dropping out in a longitudinal framework. Too often research on dropouts looks at predictors approximately two years prior to dropping out and outcomes approximately two to four years after dropping out. Given the importance of educational credentials in a postindustrial society, research should place dropping out of school into the context of the life course perspective and investigate how this act is related to a wider variety of predictors in childhood and outcomes in later life. Such studies should clearly define dropout, including its many subcategories, and investigate the similarities and differences in a variety of outcomes in the later stages of the life course such as life satisfaction, lifetime earnings, and mental and physical health (to name a few).
- Pallas, A. (1986) School Dropouts in the United States. In: Stern, J. & Williams, M. (Eds.), The Condition of Education: Statistical Report. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.