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