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School Dropouts (Extent of the Problem, Factors Associated with Early School Leaving, Dropout Prevention Programs and Their Effects)

Individuals who leave school prior to high school graduation can be defined as school dropouts. From the early 1960s into the twenty-first century, as universal secondary school attendance became the norm, such individuals were the subject of study by educators, educational researchers, and concerned policymakers in the United States. With some variation in local circumstances, they are of increasing concern around the world as the educational requirements for full participation in modern societies continue to increase.

Extent of the Problem

Dropout rates have been examined from several perspectives. Event dropout rates measure the proportion of students who drop out of school in a single year without completing a certain level of schooling. Status dropout rates measure the proportion of the entire population of a given age who have not completed a certain level of schooling and are not currently enrolled. Cohort dropout rates measure dropping out among a single group or cohort of students over a given period. High school completion rates measure the proportion of an entire population of a given age who have left high school and earned a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports annual event dropout rates that describe the proportion of young adults ages fifteen through twenty-four who dropped out during the school year prior to the data collection. Between 1972 and 2000 this annual event dropout rate ranged between 4 and 6.7 percent. This rate decreased from 1972 through 1987. From 1987 to 2000 there were year-to-year fluctuations, but the overall pattern was one of stable rates ranging from 4 to 5.7 percent.

Status dropout rates are reported by the NCES as the proportion of young adults ages sixteen through twenty-four not currently enrolled in school who have not completed a high school diploma or the equivalent. Between 1972 and 2000 the annual status dropout rate declined from 14.6 percent to 10.9 percent.

Cohort dropout rates are calculated for various cohorts studied as they make their way through secondary school. The most recent large-scale secondary school cohort is found in the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. That study examined the cohort dropout rates for the eighth-grade class of 1988 followed up at two-year intervals through 1994. For this national sample of U.S. secondary school students, the cohort dropout rate in the spring of 1992, when they were scheduled to complete high school, was 10.8 percent. The rate declined to 10.1 percent by August 1992 after some of the students completed high school in the summer. The rate declined further to 7.2 percent by August 1994, two years following their scheduled completion of high school.

High school completion rates reported by the NCES are the proportions of those aged eighteen to twenty-four not in high school who have earned a diploma or the equivalent. Between 1972 and 2000 this rate ranged from 82.8 percent to 86.5 percent.

Dropout rates differ by various demographic factors, including gender, race and ethnicity, immigration status, and geographic location. In the United States dropout rates are higher for males than for females. Hispanics have the highest dropout rates by far, followed by African Americans, non-Hispanic whites, and Asian Americans. For example, in 2000 the status dropout rate for Hispanics was 27.8 percent, while the corresponding rates for African Americans, non-Hispanic whites, and Asian Americans were 13.1 percent, 6.9 percent, and 3.8 percent, respectively. Individuals born outside the United States have a higher dropout rate than those born in the United States. There are also regional differences in the United States, with the South and West having higher dropout rates than the Northeast and Midwest. Students in urban areas are more likely to drop out of school than students in suburban areas.

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