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New Report Illuminates America’s “Silent” Dropout Epidemic– Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

National survey of young dropouts provides new insights; vast majority could have graduated with relevant courses, better support

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Tiffany Happel
Civic Enterprises
Phone: 202.467.8894

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Most students who dropped out of high school say they could have succeeded with more challenging coursework, engaging classroom experiences, and access to extra help, according to a report released today by Civic Enterprises.

In a survey of nearly 470 dropouts throughout the country, nearly 50 percent said they left school because their classes were boring and not relevant to their lives or career aspirations. A majority said schools did not motivate them to work hard, and more than half dropped out with just two years or less to complete their high school education.

“The poignant voices of these young people should serve as a wake-up call to the nation,” said John Bridgeland, President and CEO of Civic Enterprises. “This epidemic is a national disgrace because we know this problem is largely solvable.” 

One of the most extensive surveys ever of American high school dropouts, “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” is based on research conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and was commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The survey results give a new perspective on America’s dropout epidemic at a time when education is at the forefront of state and national policy debates, and increasingly vital to the nation’s future success.

About one million students drop out every year, and nearly half of all African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans fail to graduate. These alarming statistics have far reaching consequences for these individuals and the country’s economic and civic health. Dropouts are more likely than high school graduates to be unemployed, in poor health, living in poverty, in prison or on public assistance, and to have children who also drop out of high school. On average, a high school dropout earns $9,200 less per year than a high school graduate, and about $1 million less over a lifetime than a college graduate.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said they would have worked harder to graduate if their schools had demanded more of them and provided the necessary academic and personal supports to help them succeed. Others said that as they grew older, there was more freedom and other distractions to draw them away from school. Sixty-two percent reported they had grades of C’s or better when they left school and 70 percent were confident they could have met their school’s graduation requirements. More than half (58 percent) dropped out with just two years or less to complete high school, and 74 percent would have stayed in school if they had to do it over again.

“There wasn’t anybody to keep me there,” said a young man from Philadelphia, who had dreams of going to college, dropped out of high school with just one year to go, regrets the decision, and is now unemployed.

The survey of young people ages 16-25 who left high school without earning their diploma provides one of the most in-depth pictures to date of why some students drop out, their views about school, and what they say might have helped them stay in school. Among the leading causes for dropping out include feeling unchallenged, unmotivated, bored, and unsupported. Personal reasons, such as needing a job, becoming a parent, or having to take care of a sick family member, are also leading causes.

Young people in 25 big cities and small towns gave a variety of reasons for dropping out. The report concludes that students who leave school early exhibit clear warning signs, but school or parental intervention is rare:

  • Up to two-thirds of dropouts surveyed say they missed class often in the year before quitting high school.

  • Less than half of all those surveyed knew a teacher or counselor with whom they felt comfortable discussing their personal problems.

  • Only 20 percent say their parents were “very involved” in their schooling.

  • Nearly 70 percent of dropouts said their parents became involved in their education only when they were on the verge of leaving school.

  • Less than half said their school contacted their parents or themselves when they were absent or when they dropped out.

“Most students don’t wake up on a single morning and decide to drop out of school. Rather, dropping out is the end of a long-term process of disengagement, as students find school to be disconnected from -- even at odds with -- the rest of their lives," said Geoff Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

While these former students accept some responsibility for not completing high school, they say that there are “supports” that can be provided at school and at home. More than 70 percent believe that the problem could be addressed through better teachers, real world learning opportunities, smaller classes, increased supervision, and improved communication between parents and schools. 

“As we work to improve our nation’s high schools for all students, it is vital for us to consider the insights and reflections of the young people who were failed by our schools,” said Jim Shelton, program director of the Education Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Our education system needs to respond by ensuring all students – no matter where they go to school – have access to the challenging, relevant and supportive education to ensure their success in this tough new economy.”

The report recommends a national effort at all levels of government and at the community level to educate Americans on the severity of the nation’s staggering dropout problem and to identify the most promising ways to address it. Specifically, Civic Enterprises recommends that communities offer students a variety of school options to meet their needs, engage parents, create “early warning systems” for at-risk students, and make sure that all students have an adult advocate who can get them the necessary help. The report also calls for more accurate tracking of dropouts, consideration of raising the state compulsory school age to 18, better incentives under federal law to provide additional support for low-performing students, and replicating innovative dropout prevention efforts. 

Civic Enterprises
Civic Enterprises is a public policy development firm dedicated to informing discussions on issues of importance to the nation.   

Hart Research
Peter D. Hart Research Associates is a leading public opinion and market research firm.

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