When high school and college students leave school without diplomas or degrees, it becomes harder for them to earn substantial salaries, live healthful lives and open doors of opportunity. While dropout rates among some student populations fell over the last decade, every year, millions of learners don’t finish their programs of study. The following guide examines why students drop out, what can be done to support them and where helpful resources can be found.
Student dropout is a significant concern throughout America at both the high school and college levels due to numerous factors. These statistics demonstrate the current landscape of student dropout rates.
1.2 million secondary students leave high school each year without degrees — the equivalent of one dropout per 26 seconds. (source)
Considering only undergraduates who left school with college debt, nearly four million college students dropped out during fiscal year 2015 to 2016. The number who left with no debt is unknown (source)
Graduation of Latino students rose impressively between 2006 and 2010, with the overall rate going up by 10 percent. Still, these numbers lag behind white and Asian-American students (source)
A study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that high school dropouts have lifetime earnings that are $200,000 less than their graduated peers. They earn more than a million dollars less than those with a college degree. (source)
At the college level, 59 percent of students complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. This number changes when considering gender, as 62 percent of women earned their degrees and only 56 percent of men did the same. (source)
Male high school students made up approximately 55 percent of dropouts, according to a 2014 study. (source)
According to expert Jason Patel, low-income students in particular struggle with staying in school. “These students start two steps behind everyone else, with fewer resources, fewer comforts and fewer opportunities to focus solely on academics and having fun,” says Patel. “We need to control costs of education or give these students an alternative way to compete for jobs in the economy of the future.”
High school and college students drop out of school for a variety of reasons. Some learners may feel they are too far behind academically to catch up, while others may have problems at home. Whatever the reason, many support systems exist to help students stay in school and earn diplomas or degrees.
According to a recent survey by America’s Promise Alliance of high school students who left before graduating, failing too many classes was the answer given by nearly 28 percent of all survey responders. Falling behind in classes can feel demoralizing and make students question the point of school. According to Jason Patel, “many students lack the confidence or study skills to keep up with the work in school.”
He continues, “once they encounter a battery of exams that they don’t know how to study for, their grades fall. When grades fall, students find themselves in a hole that is hard to climb out of.”
Around 22 percent of young adults who drop out of school listed becoming a caregiver as the reason. Whether students are caring for other family members or their own children, the emotional, physical and financial strains of caregiving can make completing school difficult.
Though the Department of Health and Human Services found that substance abuse among high school students has fallen in recent years, both these learners and college students can face significant issues when it comes to substance abuse. In college, as Jason Patel notes, the freedom for degree seekers to make their own decisions can lead to poor choices.
“For the most part, college students become responsible for themselves,” he says. “When students don’t know how to act without supervision, they’ll unintentionally act recklessly.” Once that happens, he notes, more problems arise. “Reckless behavior leads to alcohol and drug abuse, which leads to missed readings and homework, which leads to missed exams, poor study habits and, ultimately, a bad college experience that forces students out of school.”
For low-income students and those struggling with homelessness, fulfilling basic needs often comes before homework and getting an education. In both high school and college, many students struggle with purchasing school supplies, affording healthy food and getting the resources and support they need to thrive.
According to a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 20 percent of students aged 13 to 18 have mental health conditions, while the American Psychological Association found that college students also face similar concerns. An APA study found that 41.6 percent of postsecondary learners deal with anxiety, while depression (36.4 percent) and relational issues (35.8 percent) are also active concerns.
After recognizing the issues facing students at risk of dropping out, the inevitable question becomes, what can be done to keep them in school? The following section takes a look at some concrete steps parents, schools and even students can take to stay the course and graduate from high school or college.
Rather than waiting until it happens, many strategies exist that parents can use to help their children avoid dropping out.
“Always keep an open line of communication with your child,” encourages Patel. “They are bound to hide things from you, but let them know that you’ll always have their back if things go wrong. The worst thing you can do is become unapproachable, which leaves your child on an island.”
Talk to your children about your own career path and the paths of others. Help them see the differences between gaining a high school diploma/college degree and how many more doors open for them at each level. When talking about what they want to do with their professional lives, teach them how to find out what educational level is required for interesting jobs.
While it’s good for parents to encourage and champion their children’s abilities, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. If your child seems stressed by too many extracurriculars and expectations, encourage them to prioritize their education and cut back on things causing them stress — at least for a while.
Teachers get to see students in the academic environment more than parents do, so if you’re concerned that your high schooler is considering dropping out, it might be a good idea to contact the teacher or principal to discuss your concerns and brainstorm solutions.
Whether your student finds him/herself struggling with schoolwork, friends, mental health or figuring out what to do in life, find ways to support him or her. Great examples of meaningful interventions include tutors, mentors, psychologists/counselors or career shadowing. Simple acts also make a difference: If your student seems stressed after school one day, ask if he/she wants to go on a walk or go get a meal and chat.
New college students often find the transition from high school to be harder than expected. Remind your student to give it another semester, just another 15 weeks, and perhaps suggest taking fewer credits next semester, if he or she is feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes that can make all the difference.
Whether your student is in high school or college, options exist for other schools that may be a better fit, whether online or on campus. Explore some of the alternatives that may be available, whether a charter or vocational high school, a community college, an online program or something else.
Many programs exist for students looking to take that year between high school and college, or even during college, off from school. These include community service, cultural immersion or tutoring at-risk youth. Or students can simply take a year to travel or work. Families might consider working with students to create a starting and ending point for this gap year to address any issues the student may be wrestling with, such as financial difficulties or a desire to pursue a different field of study.
There are a number of steps high schools can take and programs they can create to help provide students a better chance of staying in school. Examples include:
By identifying issues related to poor attendance, boredom, family obligations or challenging issues early in a child’s educational career, schools have a better chance of changing behaviors and attitudes, creating structure and implementing individualized learning options to help students stay focused on the goal of graduating.
Programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America have proven effective when it comes to helping high-risk students stay the course and graduate. Schools should consider inviting volunteers from these organizations to engage with students and provide a steady adult presence to encourage them.
In addition to losing some of their new skills and knowledge over the summer break, many students face life transitions during these months that may contribute to their decision to drop out. By staying engaged with learners through summer-enrichment or reading-incentive programs, schools have a better sense of what complications may be occurring in students’ lives.
The sad reality is that students who don’t finish high school earn $9,200 less per year than their graduated peers. Additionally, 75 percent of inmates in state prisons didn’t finish high school, and the death rate for those with fewer than 12 years of education is 2.5 times higher than it is for those with 13 or more years of education. It’s worth it to stay in school for myriad reasons.
A decade ago, the Austin Independent School District in Texas created a program to build and strengthen classroom communities by recruiting volunteers to provide career coaching, college advisement, life coaching and one-to-one relationships with students and adults. This model has proven successful and now utilizes the help of hundreds of volunteers each year to support students.
Only about 6 out of 10 students graduate from a college or university within six years of matriculation, but there are numerous steps these institutions can take to encourage and support students who want to graduate.
A College Board study found that the cost of private and public institutions continues to rise steadily while available financial aid fails to keep up with the increases. “The price of college needs to lower,” notes Patel. “Colleges know that the loans students take out are guaranteed by the government, so they raise their tuitions with the expectation that the debt will be paid one way or another. For many families, colleges are raising the price for achieving the American Dream.”
Colleges must find ways to lessen the financial burden on students, either through innovative distance-education programs, in-state tuition programs for nonresidents or other alternatives.
According to EAB, approximately 66 percent of learners who leave school without a degree do so because of academic reasons. It’s common to feel overwhelmed when making the transition from high school to college, yet approximately 33 percent of these students stop attending before sophomore year. Colleges must provide introductory classes to help students learn how to study and prepare for the rigors of college.
With student mental health issues on the rise across all colleges, it is vitally important for colleges to step up their services. “Schools have to offer more mental health solutions and destigmatize mental health issues,” says Patel. “This will be a slow process.”
In addition to providing counselors and exercise facilities, some colleges are developing peer-support programs, providing therapy dogs during stressful times and connecting students with Therapy Assistance Online programs.
Rather than letting students with extenuating family circumstances slip away, colleges must find ways to support them. Some of the ways to do this include providing daycare, expectant-parent classes, family housing, spaces for breastfeeding or free children’s meals with the use of student meal plans.
At the end of the day, some students just aren’t a good fit for specific colleges and vice versa. If these institutions adequately convey the experience students can expect to have upon enrollment, the chances of the students becoming displeased and eventually dropping out are lessened.
In addition to the list of actionable steps students can take for the specific issues reviewed in the previous section, here are some general tips to help students stay the course and graduate.
At both the high school and college level, students shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if they need it. Regardless of the obstacle at hand, reach out to your parents, a favorite teacher or anyone else in your life whom you trust, and let that person know what’s going on. It may feel stressful at first, but chances are that person has an idea for how to help you.
“Make a study schedule and stick to it,” encourages Patel. “Discipline, not intelligence, is the key to college success, and hard work beats talent when talent refuses to work hard.” Not sure how to go about setting up these goals? “Form study groups and make study guides and flash cards. Surround yourself with like-minded individuals,” says Patel. “It’s effort, not IQ, that counts.”
“A good diet will keep your energy levels high and your mood sustained,” notes Patel. Research shows that diets high in trans fats and saturated fats can affect learning and memory in a negative way, while proper nutrition can improve cognition, concentration and energy levels. Talk to your cafeteria about healthy eating options if you aren’t sure which foods to eat.
The Lumina Foundation offers this fascinating report on students who attend community colleges first versus those who move straight into four-year programs and the effects of each on dropout rates.
The Nonprofit Quarterly takes a look at how issues with income disparity create scenarios in which students are more likely to leave without their degrees.
The National Dropout Prevention Center provides a range of strategies including early intervention, mentoring, after-school opportunities and more to help schools best care for at-risk learners.
This study by BMC Public Health provides insight into how mental health issues left untreated contribute to higher dropout rates.
The SDPL was created as part of the USAID School Dropout Pilot Prevention Program and offers helpful advice for teachers.
The U.S. Department of Education offers a range of resources and information about dropout prevention, with specific information for rural students.