Does the U.S. Have a High School Dropout Crisis?

In today’s world, dropping out of high school is a sure way to end your ability to make a secure living. In 2009, individuals over 18 years old who had not completed high school or earned their General Educational Certificate (GED) made approximately $20,241 annually –$10,386 less than a high school graduate and less than half of what a person with a bachelor’s degree earns per year, according to the U.S. Census. While it may have been possible to survive without completing high school decades ago, it is far more difficult today.


Dropout rates in the United States

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) keeps statistics on dropout rates. They consider gender, race and ethnicity, as well as age. In 2012, they noted that 4 out of 5 students receives a regular high school diploma and graduates on time, in addition to the following statistics:

  • In 2012, the dropout rate in public schools was 3.3%, the same rate found in the 2010-2011 school year
  • The graduation rate for females is about 7% higher than the graduation rate for males
  • The average graduation rate is about 80% in the United States. American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic students have graduation rates below the national average, at 65%, 67%, and 71%, respectively.
  • White and Asian/Pacific Islander students graduate at rates above the national average, at 86% and 88%, respectively.
  • The dropout rate for Hispanics born in the U.S. is higher than the dropout rate for other groups born in the U.S.
  • Students born outside the U.S. have a higher dropout rate than those born in the U.S.

Why do students drop out?

A study by the Gates Foundation found that students leave school for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They felt a lack of connection with the educational environment
  • They felt school was boring
  • They had little or no motivation to be there, let alone perform well
  • Academic work was overwhelming, and was too great a challenge given their level of knowledge
  • Other aspects of their lives were impacting their ability to attend school or seemed more important than attending school

What are the consequences of dropping out?

Failure to complete high school can have serious consequences that impact a young person’s personal and economic life. Dropouts are more likely to:

  1. Work jobs in a lower income bracket
  2. Become single parents whose children also eventually drop out of high school
  3. End up serving time in prison or jail
  4. Receive public assistance or welfare
  5. Get divorced
  6. Have poor health

How do we lower the dropout rate?

According to the Gates study, the dropout rate is likely higher than the one stated. While the solution isn’t easy, the report says, there are ways to continue reducing the dropout rate in the U.S. Some suggestions include:

  • Make curriculum more engaging and relevant
  • Strengthen the connection between school and real-world learning with internships and other connections to the working world
  • Improve support for students who are struggling, including additional academic help and smaller, more personal learning environments
  • Ensure students feel safe so they can focus on learning
  • Improve communication between the school and parents

Additionally, schools needs to address the needs of students who are unprepared to enter high school. Some students are not prepared academically, socially and even emotionally for the change from grade to high school. Further research can help identify children who are at risk and ways to help keep them in school.


There is some dispute about whether the dropout rate is a crisis, but what is clear is that completing high school is essential if young people are to improve their prospects and live up to their potential. Failing to graduate high school does not simplify life, it complicates it. Dropping out can lead to a life that is harder than it needs to be.

Photo: Students at their graduation ceremony. Credit: hmm360 / morgueFile

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The Author

Mary Brown

Mary Brown

Mary Brown has enjoyed writing about education and finance related topics, such as scholarships, student loans, college, vocational degree choices, and adult education since the early 2000's. She also writes about school budgets, accreditation and fundraising.