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High-School Dropouts: A Workforce "Tragedy"

High-school graduation rates in the largest U.S. cities are abysmal.

A report released this week by America’s Promise Alliance says in the 50 largest cities, about half of all students in the main school systems graduate from high school. These rates, the report says, are "considerably lower" than graduation rates in suburban areas:

... extreme disparities emerge in a number of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, where students served by suburban systems may be twice as likely as their urban peers to graduate from high school.

Nationwide, nearly one in three U.S. high-school students drops out before graduating, according to an APA release, and approximately 1.2 million students drop out every year. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that 2006-2007 high-school dropouts will in their lifetimes cost the United States more than $329 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity.

These numbers, alarming in their own right, spell major trouble for our workforce. But just how big is the problem--and what's the solution?

"Committing Economic Suicide"

Before finding a solution, the true size of the problem must be recognized. The APA report says the graduation rate of the largest cities is:

well below the national graduation rate of 70 percent, and even falls short of the average for urban districts across the country (60 percent). Only six of these 50 principal districts reach or exceed the national average. In the most extreme cases (Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis), fewer than 35 percent of students graduate with a diploma.

Further analysis demonstrates that the extremely low graduation rates for these large school systems contribute disproportionately to the nation’s graduation crisis. The principal school districts of America’s 50 largest cities collectively educate 1.7 million public high school students – one out of every eight in the country. However, these 50 education agencies account for nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the 1.2 million students nationwide who fail to graduate with a diploma each year.

Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies in Boston, says he has worked on a number of reports in the past that reached similar conclusions. He refers to the problem as "a tragedy for the workforce," and says dropouts fare very poorly in today's labor market:

And that’s particularly true for men—men’s job opportunities decline considerably. By the time they get past their late 30s, fewer than half hold a job. The lifetime earnings of male dropouts are lower than any time since 1959.

If you drop out of school today it’s the equivalent of committing economic suicide. There’s just no role for dropouts. Their role is they perpetuate the growth of our jails and prisons. They are far more likely to be in jail or prison than any other group. If you care about your workforce, you would be terribly frightened by these numbers.

Toward a Solution

A USA TODAY op-ed suggests potential fixes: require accurate reporting, increase the mandatory attendance age to 17 or 18 in all states, and make high school more relevant "by tying math and literacy lessons to vocational studies that students find meaningful for future jobs."

It looks as though the federal government is working on that first recommendation. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings--also this week--announced all states will be required to use the same formula to calculate how many students graduate and drop out from high school. As the USA TODAY op-ed says, this is a "good start."

Sum urges employers to be part of the solution:

What can employers do? I think they need to get more involved in sitting on advisory boards, school boards, in demanding our kids do better in literacy and math skills.

Dropout rates are lower in school districts where employers play an active role in school-to-work programs, Sum says, noting high-school students who work are less likely to drop out.

In a recent report to Congress, Sum explains:

Youth who participate in work-based learning activities during high school are more likely to see the relevance of school work to career success and acquire stronger employability skills. There also is a very strong path dependence in teen employment, i.e., the more teens work this year, the more likely they are to work the following year. Work in high school also favorably increases the ability of youth to move smoothly to the labor market after graduation, especially among those graduates not enrolling full-time in four year colleges or universities immediately after graduation.

Sum makes excellent points, as does the USA TODAY editorial. The solution requires all hands on deck--parents, educators, policy-makers and business leaders. Parents and educators must be the support network students need to succeed, offering guidance, mentoring and encouragment when academic rigors and other teen pressures seem overwhelming.

Meanwhile, policy-makers and business leaders should collaborate, making sure systems are set up to monitor students' progress and so students can advance through the education pipeline and into the workforce.

If this doesn't happen, America's workforce will be in peril. And America's position in the global economy will be, at the very least, compromised.

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