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The Economic Ripple Effect of High School Dropouts

by Marion J. Herbert

In addition to setting themselves up for a lifetime of low wages and inadequate benefits, youths who do not graduate from high school take a toll on the economy. Nearly 1 million students who start high school each year do not make it to graduation, said NPR in the 2011 report, “School Dropout Rates Add to Fiscal Burden.” These students often struggle with poverty, abuse or neglect in their homes. NPR’s Claudio Sanchez says it costs taxpayers nearly $320 billion each year to make up for the lost wages, taxable income, health care payouts, welfare and costs of incarceration.

Earning Less

The most immediate effect a high school dropout sees is in his wallet. Without a high school diploma, dropouts are not eligible for 90 percent of jobs in the United States, says Sanchez. A 2011 report, “The High Cost of High School Dropouts,” by the Alliance for Excellent Education, states that nationwide the average annual income for a high school dropout in 2009 was $19,450 compared to $27,380 for a high school graduate -- a difference of nearly $8,000. Over their lifetime, dropouts earn $200,000 less than their graduate peers and nearly $1 million less than a college graduate, according to the NPR report. In earning less money, dropouts not only consume less but also produce less taxable income for the government.

Government Assistance

One of the greatest impacts dropouts impose on the national economy is seen in government assistance in welfare and health care. Because they are earning less in wages, high school dropouts are 2.5 times more likely to rely on public assistance programs such as welfare and food stamps, says Heart Works, an organization focused on after school programs for at-risk youth. This adds up to nearly $8 billion per year on government programs, the National Center for Dropout Prevention says.

Skills Needed for a Global Economy

Highly skilled individuals are needed for the United States to remain competitive in a global economy. Dropouts lack many critical skills acquired by their peers who completed high school, and especially those who completed college. This includes basic and advanced computer skills, higher-level reasoning and the ability to analyze data. Employers not only look to see that their employees possess these skills, but they want certification in a high school or college diploma.

The Road to Incarceration

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), many schools maintain zero-tolerance policies, which automatically impose expulsion and suspension on students despite the circumstances of their offenses at school. These policies, which are more likely to affect children of color, push students out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. “The School to Prison Pipeline,” a report from ACLU, says many of these students face barriers to re-enter the traditional school system and therefore drop out. The lack of support and opportunity that a high school diploma provides often leads many of these youths to a life of crime. This can be seen in the sobering statistics: Some 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates never received a high school degree, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center.

About the Author

Marion J. Herbert is an experienced writer, editor and communications professional based in the greater New York City region. She is a graduate of Marist College and has worked for "District Administration" magazine and is currently the communications manager of a large Connecticut-based nonprofit organization.

Photo Credits

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