The Ultimate Temptation: Dropping Out Of School

In a study by The Decision Lab, nearly half of all respondents disagreed that someone who graduated from high school would contribute as much to the economy as someone with a postgraduate degree. How can we position more students to graduate from high school and enjoy the associated economic, social, and cultural benefits of doing so?


Failing to finish secondary school isn’t without consequences: $630,000 lost in potential earnings, 90% job ineligibility, elevated rates of heart disease and diabetes, increased risk of mental illness, welfare reliance, and incarceration, to name a few.1 These aren’t limited to a small minority. In the United States, for example, 1 in 8 students never graduate from high school—a statistic that has remained largely unchanged since 1990.2 In Quebec, one in five girls and one in three boys leave high school before graduation.3 These findings are similar (and at times worse) in developing countries. In Jharkhand, India, a state with the highest school dropout rate in the country, 70% of students leave school at the primary or secondary level.4

This unfortunate combination of a large number of school dropouts and the immense consequences these individuals face calls for concerted action. Accordingly, this article explores a number of key questions: What is the demographic profile of students who drop out? What are the explanations—psychological and otherwise—for them doing so? Have interventions been devised to address this problem? Given the immense scope for improvement, what other solutions could be proposed?  

The Statistical Story  

The statistical story can be examined in two segments: (1) who drops out, (2) and why do they drop out. To frame this discussion, we focus particularly on North America, citing examples from the US and Canada.  

Who drops out? 

The propensity to drop out of school is accentuated by low socioeconomic and ethnic minority status, conditions that often overlap. Out of the 1.3 million students who left school in 2013 in the US, more than half were students of color, and most were low-income. In fact, “low-income students fail to graduate at five times the rate of middle-income families and six times that of higher-income youth”.5

A few explanations have been offered for this disparity.  One is that familial poverty coincides with several adverse conditions or stressors—food insecurity and malnutrition, absent or incarcerated parents, homelessness or poor living conditions, and domestic violence.6 These stressors detrimentally affect students’ capacity for learning, often contributing to poor academic performance, anti-educational attitudes, and low scholastic effort, which are all precursors to dropping out.7

Another explanation is that of geographical distribution and school funding inequalities. Ethnic minorities often congregate in certain areas, areas that are often marred by poverty and crime. For example, a 2000 report entitled, High School Dropout, Race-Ethnicity, and Social Background found that African-American high school students mostly reside in the South, Hispanic students in the West, and white students are distributed throughout.8 Given the high levels of poverty and crime in these regions of the South and the West, and the reliance on district education funding, there can be severe constraints on the resources and opportunities at the schools where ethnic minorities are mostly found. Contributing to a poor educational experience, these constraints can place students at risk of dropping out. 

Why do they drop out? 

The “push, pull, and falling out” framework dictates three conditions that can contribute to a student dropping out of school. 

The first, push, is when the student experiences a push from the school that results in their decision to drop out.9 The student could have not followed school rules or policies, for example, cheating on a test or being disrespectful towards a teacher. Doing so and the subsequent consequences—detention, suspension, expulsion—could result in a student dropping out.

The second, pull, is when the student is pulled by factors within themselves or their own lives to drop out.10 This might include pregnancy, changing interests and opportunities, financial concerns, illness, or familial factors. 

The final is falling out, whereby a student gradually becomes disengaged and disaffected with the idea of completing school.11 As opposed to push and pull factors that have identifiable causes, there may be no particular reason in falling out cases.  

Psychological Interventions To Prevent Drop Out  

Most school-dropout-prevention interventions focus on providing either psychological or academic support to students. The former might include counseling and increasing teacher support, while the latter might include providing specialized tutoring or altering expectations about student performance.

One intervention is aptly called Check & Connect. Applied throughout Kindergarten to Grade 12, this intervention is largely psychological—providing increased teacher support to at-risk students and their families.12 The researchers use a concept called “persistence plus” whereby they demonstrate to students that there is an adult at their school who believes in them, is available to them, and will motivate them to learn, complete homework, maintain regular attendance, and ultimately, stay in and succeed at school.13


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Having been applied for over two decades, the intervention has been successful in increasing students’ academic engagement. Why? “Student engagement across the school years depends on the degree to which there is a match between the student’s characteristics and the school environment so that the student is able to handle the academic and behavioral demands of school”.14 By creating close bonds between students and teachers, the intervention assists in cultivating a match between the student and the school, and as challenges arise, effectively addressing these. 

Similarly, academic support interventions have been successful. Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist, considered the benefits of one common form of academic support: tutoring. He found that one-on-one teaching, in which tutors tailor their methodology for each student, is very beneficial. “According to Oakes & Lipton, 80% of Bloom’s experimental students achieved at a level reached by only 20% of the students in typical classrooms”.15 This finding is significant given that students who fail Math or English in 8th grade are 75% more likely to drop out of high school.16

However, a feasibility problem arises. Providing individualized tutoring for all students, or even just those at-risk of dropping out is not practical given budgetary/monetary limitations in the public school system.

Emulating this idea is the concept of motivational interviewing. In this intervention, which combines socioemotional and academic support, students regularly meet with a school staff member. In regular meetings, occurring every two weeks, they discuss strategies for increasing a student’s motivation to participate in and finish school.17 “Motivational interviewing is an empathetic, student-focused, collaborative, and directive behavior change strategy that works to increase students’ motivation”.18 Over time, the increase in students’ intrinsic motivation can reduce their risk of dropping out.

While these interventions can be effective, they are impractical to standardize and scale. So, what’s next? What could be some other options that offer better chances of system-wide improvements?  

Potential Solutions 

Potential solutions can be broadly split into two areas. The first is to extend current interventions, and the second is new solutions not yet in active practice.  

1. Extending current interventions

Researchers at Stanford University devised an intervention to reduce suspension rates among middle-school students.19 Previously cited as a push factor, suspension can contribute to a student’s decision to drop out of school. Consequently, reducing suspension rates and the associated misbehavior may discourage dropping out.  The intervention encouraged teachers to adopt an empathic as opposed to a punitive mindset when engaging with students who had misbehaved. To do so, teachers read an article, explained how empathy could be used to ensure classroom control, and subsequently noted how they would discipline students in three hypothetical scenarios. Conducted in five middle schools in the US, the intervention increased respect for teachers and good behavior among students, cutting student suspension rates in half: from 9.6% to 4.8%.19

Adopting this intervention, through administering widespread empathic response training, could be successful in reducing school dropout. For one, it reduces the push factors experienced by students. It also creates a sense of psychological safety. Their teacher—an authority figure—is responding to their misbehavior with understanding and offering opportunities for improvement. This can encourage positive attitudes about schooling and hence increase completion. 

2. Devising new ideas

Our previous exploration of successful interventions—individualized tutoring, Check & Connect, and motivational interviewing—revealed strategies that improve outcomes but are difficult to scale. Providing students with individualized guidance, giving them and their families school support, and engaging in regular check-ins, all prove key. However, the primary limitation is that this is resource-intensive. So, how can these strategies be delivered in an accessible manner?

One idea is that of group-based interventions. Rather than interacting with at-risk students on an individual basis, it could be done in a group format. Mirroring group therapy for depressive disorders, this would connect students with others who are experiencing similar issues and facilitate a shared avenue for resolving these issues. There is, of course, the risk that this creates comradery among at-risk students and enforces a mutual desire to leave school. 

Another idea is peer-to-peer counseling. Pairing students skeptical of school (and at risk of dropping out) with those with foremost educational goals could facilitate an important dialogue. Sharing perspectives across such disparate viewpoints would, at the very least, provide an indication that another attitude, experience, and outcome is possible. Doing this between students also facilitates free discussion—there is no obligation to feign understanding or withhold genuine questions.  

Looking forward

Graduating from high school is critical to achieving outcomes along key dimensions such as employment and earnings, physical and mental health, and incarceration. However, throughout the developed world—Scandinavian nations being the notable exception—high school dropout rates remain high. This inflicts an immense social, economic, and individual cost. Interventions have been effective in reducing school dropout rates in the local ecosystems where they have been implemented; however, they are limited in feasibility to apply at scale. Applying key lessons from these interventions in more accessible formats could create scalable and impactful interventions. Ultimately, our education system must adapt to the vicissitudes of students. It must be generous, inspiring, and enlightening.  

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