Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery


John Tyler and Magnus Lofstrom take a close look at the problems posed when students do not complete high school. The authors begin by discussing the ongoing, sometimes heated, debate over how prevalent the dropout problem is. They note that one important reason for discrepancies in reported dropout rates is whether holders of the General Educational Development (GED) credential are counted as high school graduates. The authors also consider the availability of appropriate student data. The overall national dropout rate appears to be between 22 and 25 percent, but the rate is higher among black and Hispanic students, and it has not changed much in recent decades. Tyler and Lofstrom conclude that schools are apparently doing about as well now as they were forty years ago in terms of graduating students. But the increasingly competitive pressures associated with a global economy make education ever more important in determining personal and national well-being.

A student’s decision to drop out of school, say the authors, is affected by a number of complex factors and is often the culmination of a long process of disengagement from school. That decision, not surprisingly, carries great cost to both the student and society. Individual costs include lower earnings, higher likelihood of unemployment, and greater likelihood of health problems. Because minority and low-income students are significantly more likely than well-to-do white students to drop out of school, the individual costs fall unevenly across groups. Societal costs include loss of tax revenue, higher spending on public assistance, and higher crime rates.

Tyler and Lofstrom go on to survey research on programs designed to reduce the chances of students’ dropping out. Although the research base on this question is not strong, they say, close mentoring and monitoring of students appear to be critical components of successful programs. Other dropout-prevention approaches associated with success are family outreach and attention to students’ out-of-school problems, as well as curricular reforms. The authors close with a discussion of second-chance programs, including the largest such program, the GED credential.