13.7C: High School Dropouts


While education can improve life chances, not everyone has equal access to education.

Learning Objectives

• Recall some of the reasons why students in the U.S. may drop out of high school and the potential consequences of dropping out

Key Points

• The more education people have, the higher their income, the better their life chances, and the higher their standard of living.
• Dropout rates also vary geographically, with the lowest rates in northern states.
• The relationships students have with their peers also influence a student’s likelihood of dropping out.

Key Terms

• Academic Risk Factors: Academic risk factors refer to the performance of students in school and are highly related to school-level problems. These factors include absenteeism, grade retention, special education placement, low performance and grades, and low educational expectations.
• life chances: Life chances (Lebenschancen in German) is a political theory of the opportunities each individual has to improve his or her quality of life. The concept was introduced by German sociologist Max Weber. It is a probabilistic concept, describing how likely it is, given certain factors, that an individual’s life will turn out a certain way.

Life Chances

The more education people have, the higher their income, the better their life chances, and the higher their standard of living. In general, people with more education tend to earn higher incomes and enjoy a higher standard of living. High school dropouts are much less likely to be employed than those with high school and college degrees. Even earning a four-year degree can raise average weekly income by nearly $400. Max Weber used the concept of “life chances” to express an individual’s access to employment opportunities and other resources. In part, life chances are determined by birth. An individual born into a wealthy family will have higher life chances than average because they will have access to greater opportunities from the moment they are born. Education also offers a means to improve one’s life chances by improving employment opportunities and making social connections. Thus, the consequences to dropping out can be high, as they significantly decrease the opportunity to improve one’s life chances. In addition to personal costs, dropping out has social costs. Dropouts have a greater likelihood of being arrested. Ultimately, this can lower the average standard of living for society as a whole. According to estimates, the average high school dropout will cost the government over$292,000.

Not all students have an equal risk of dropping out. Students at risk for dropout based on academic risk factors are those who often have a history of absenteeism and grade retention, academic trouble, and more general disengagement from school life. Students may also be at risk for dropout based on social risk factors. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups drop out at higher rates than white students, as do those from low-income families, from single-parent households, and from families in which one or both parents also did not complete high school. Dropout rates also vary geographically, with the lowest rates in northern states. The highest dropout rates occur in the south and southwestern United States.

Why else might students drop out? Sociologists tend to group dropout risk factors into different categories, including academic risk factors and school-level risk factors. Academic risk factors relate to the performance of students in school. School structure, curriculum, and size may increase the exposure of students to academic risk factors. For example, students are more likely to drop out when they attend schools with less rigorous curriculum, when they attend large schools, or when they attend schools with poor student-teacher interactions.

The relationships students have with their peers also influence a student’s likelihood of dropping out. Students who build relationships with anti-social peers or who have deviant friends were more likely to drop out of school early regardless of their achievement in school. Relationships with parents can also influence a student’s decision to stay in school. The better the relationship, as demonstrated through positive interaction and parental involvement, the more likely the student will stay in school. If a student does not have a good relationship with her parents, the student is more likely to drop out even if she has good grades and good behavior.

Students who drop out of school may identify different motivations, including uninteresting classes (a lack of engagement with school life and classes), feeling unmotivated (especially by teachers who did not demand enough or were not inspirational), personal reasons (had to get a job, became a parent, had to support or care for a family member), and academic challenges (felt like they could not keep up, felt unprepared for high school, had to repeat a grade, or graduation requirements seemed out of reach).

Finally, some education researchers have noted that dropout rates may have been exacerbated by policies such as the U.S. No Child Left Behind Act that required schools to use high-stakes standardized testing as an accountability measure. These policies may have inadvertently encouraged students to drop out of high school, since teachers and administrators utilize grade retention as a strategy to improve test scores and ensure positive ratings for the school. As mentioned above, grade retention increases the likelihood that a student will drop out of school.

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