The Dropout's Perspective on Leaving School
Researchers and theorists have studied and written about the reasons why students drop out of high school, what happens to these dropouts, and what the future holds for them. But what do the dropouts themselves have to say about their decision to drop out? How do they see their lives after dropping out? What advice would they offer high school students today who are thinking of dropping out?
Reasons for Dropping Out
What Dropouts Say. Asked why they decided to leave high school, dropouts from the past thirty years consistently cited three major reasons (Curley, Sawyer, and Savitsky, 1971; "High School," 1984; "High School," 1977; Kumar and Bergstrand, 1979; "Mother," 1982; Norris, Wheeler, and Finley, 1980; Peng and Takai, 1983; Stetler, 1959):
- A dislike of school and a view that school is boring and not relevant to their needs.
- Low academic achievement, poor grades, or academic failure.
- A need for money and a desire to work full-time.
Many female dropouts also cited pregnancy or marriage as reasons for dropping out. These issues, however, will not be addressed in this digest.
What Researchers Say. Studies of high school dropouts conducted over the past thirty years in several states and nationwide have identified these same three basic reasons for dropping out (see references cited above):
- Dislike of School. Consistent with the dropouts' reported dislike of and boredom with school, researchers have found a pattern of absenteeism among dropouts when they were still in school and a low rate of participation in extracurricular activities.
- Low Academic Achievement. Researchers have found that lowered performance in either reading or mathematics tended to increase the likelihood that a student would leave school. Data suggest that failure often begins in elementary school.
- Desire to Work. High school dropouts tend to belong to families of low socioeconomic status ("Mother," 1982; Peng and Takai, 1983). In support of this finding, dropouts themselves report that they left school planning to work full-time.
Life After Dropping Out
Employment Issues. Dropouts interviewed in a Phoenix, Arizona study (Norris and others, 1980) reported quitting school either because they already had a job (15.7%) or because they wanted to work (37.1%). A follow-up study revealed that far fewer respondents were able to get a job, work at a job they already had, or learn a trade than had planned to do so.
Interviews with other dropouts confirm the difficulty that dropouts have in finding and keeping jobs:
- Of dropouts interviewed in a Wisconsin study (Kumar and Bergstrand, 1979), 60% reported being employed full-time and another 8% reported being employed part-time. One-third of employed respondents reported earning less than minimum wage.
- Of dropouts interviewed in Philadelphia ("High School," 1977), 46% reported being unemployed. Of employed dropouts, 37% held unskilled jobs or worked in low-paying service occupations.
- Of dropouts interviewed in Connecticut (Stetler, 1959) 25% reported working full-time while 24% reported being unemployed and looking for work.
- Of Dade County, Florida dropouts interviewed ("High School," 1984), 60% reported being unemployed and not enrolled in any vocational or academic program.
- Of dropouts interviewed in the HIGH SCHOOL AND BEYOND study (Peng and Takai, 1983), approximately 60% of males and 33% of females reported working full-or part-time while 27% of males and 31% of females were unemployed and looking for work.
Dropouts often have lower occupational aspirations than do their peers. A study of dropouts and high school students in Dade County, Florida ("High School," 1984) who were matched for race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status found that those who stayed in school had a quite different view of their lives compared with dropouts. The majority of dropouts reported wanting blue collar jobs, while in-school students were almost equally divided among blue collar, white collar, and professional occupational aspirations. (It is important to note that the in-school group consisted of potential dropouts still in school rather than high achievers.)
Unemployment rates are very high among high school dropouts, and future income of dropouts is less than that of high school graduates. Most employed dropouts in the Dade County, Florida study reported they were earning minimum wage, while one-third of employed dropouts in the Wisconsin study reported earning less than minimum wage. Employed dropouts in a variety of studies reported working at unskilled jobs or at low-paying service occupations offering little opportunity for upward mobility.
Return to Education. Although many dropouts report leaving school because of boredom or a dislike of school, many return to some type of educational program once they realize how limited their opportunities are without a high school diploma.
Approximately two-thirds of dropouts interviewed in a 1956-57 study (Stetler, 1959) planned to complete their high school education in the future, through day school, night school, or training programs in the armed services. Twenty-nine percent of dropouts interviewed in Massachusetts (Curley and others, 1971) returned to school after dropping out and 26% of dropouts interviewed in the Philadelphia study were back in some educational program.
The Phoenix, Arizona study interviewed dropouts who had enrolled in alternative schools. They reported returning to school because they: (1) wanted to graduate so they could have more opportunities; (2) needed more education to support themselves or their families; (3) saw no future in what they were doing outside of school; or (4) were bored with being out of school.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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