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The Cost of Dropping Out

Does going to school pay off? In 2004, 22 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States had not completed high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the average annual income for individuals without a high school diploma or GED is $18,734. Compared to 1971, when average earnings were $35,087, today's dropouts face a bleak economic future. Educational attainment levels are usually mapped against earning potential to illustrate the point that more learning leads to more earning. But this measurement often ignores the broader costs to society of high-school dropouts.

By the Numbers:

- 75 percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates are high-school dropouts.

- High-school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely than graduates to be incarcerated.

- Dropouts contribute disproportionately to the unemployment rate. In 2001, 55 percent of young adult dropouts were employed, compared to 74 percent of high-school graduates and 87 percent of college graduates.

- Dropouts contribute to state and federal tax coffers at about one-half the rate of high-school graduates. Over a working lifetime, a dropout will contribute about $60,000 less.

- The 23 million high-school dropouts aged 18-67 will contribute roughly $50 billion less annually in state and federal taxes.

- Studies suggest the United States would save $41.8 billion in health care costs if the 600,000 young people who dropped out in 2004 were to complete one additional year of education.

- If 33 percent of dropouts graduated from high school, the federal government would save $10.8 billion each year in food stamps, housing assistance, and temporary assistance for needy families.

- Testifying before Congress, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said dropouts cost the United States "more than $260 billion... in lost wages, lost taxes and lost productivity over their lifetimes."

Source: American Youth Policy Forum, "Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities Are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth… The Dropout Problem in Numbers" (PDF)

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<em>Source: "Standards for What? The Economic Roots of K-16 Reform," a report from the Educational Testing Service.</em>
Source: "Standards for What? The Economic Roots of K-16 Reform," a report from the Educational Testing Service.

Ben Brudevold-Newman