The hidden cost of high school dropouts represents billions in lost income

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Find out how local schools fare Wednesday

By Carol A. Clark

New Mexico’s high school dropouts from the class of 2009 represent more than $3.4 billion in lost income, according to a report out of Washington, D.C.

 If the students who dropped out of New Mexico’s class of 2009 had graduated, the state’s economy would have benefited from more than $3.4 billion in additional income over the course of their lifetimes, a new issue brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education states.

"As these findings show, the best economic stimulus is a high school diploma,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Given the tremendous financial drag these dropouts will have on New Mexico’s economy, it is imperative that the state, as well as the federal government, focus attention on students most at risk of dropping out if it is to achieve long-term economic stability. In an Information-Age economy – education is the main currency.” 

Assistant Superintendent Kate Thomas of Los Alamos Public Schools explained this morning that the local district maintains a drop out rate much lower than the state average.

“We have perhaps the highest – if not the highest graduation rate in the state. On average, 81.6 percent of our students graduate while the state average is 54 percent,” Thomas said.

For the last five or six years LAPS has actually averaged a 95.5 percent graduation rate but the way the state measures graduates changed in the 2007-08 school year, she said.

“Up until then the rate was figured on a single September–May count and included students who received their General Education Diplomas. For the first time, the governor implemented a 4-year Cohort Graduate Rate in which students are tracked from ninth through 12th grade and students who obtain their GED are considered non-graduates in the computation. That’s a huge paradigm shift,” Thomas said.

What’s really concerning to Thomas is the breakdown by gender in the statewide graduation rate under the Cohort system of measurement.

“The all female average graduation rate for New Mexico high school students is 58.6 and the all male average is 49.7 and that’s scary,” she said. “Ignorance costs a tremendous amount of money and it ends up costing the state money and the taxpayers money.”

The state is requiring that every school district in New Mexico maintain a 90 percent graduate rate by 2020, Thomas said.

The bigger school districts will have the most difficulty meeting that goal, she said, adding that LAHS currently has 323 students and is considered one of the larger districts.

The Alliance for Excellent Education brief finds that not only do high school dropouts earn less when they are employed, they are much more likely to be unemployed during the current economic recession.

In July, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 15.4 percent, compared to 9.4 percent for high school graduates, 7.9 percent for individuals with some college credits or an associate’s degree and 4.7 percent for individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

According to the brief, “The High Cost of High School Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate High Schools,” the average annual income for a high school dropout in 2005 was $17,299, compared to $26,933 for a high school graduate, a difference of $9,634.

“These results speak clearly,” Wise said. “In this economy, being without a high school diploma is two strikes—you are more likely to make less, and, if you have a job, you are more likely to be laid off from it.”

Nationwide, more than 7,000 students become dropouts every school day. Annually, that adds up to almost 1.3 million students who will not graduate from high school with their peers as scheduled.

In New Mexico alone, an estimated 13,210 students from the class of 2009 failed to graduate on time with their peers.

“Unless America’s high schools significantly improve their graduation rates,” Wise said, “nearly 13 million students will drop out over the next decade with a massive loss to the nation of $3 trillion.”

On the other hand, everyone benefits from increased high school graduation rates, according to the brief.

Graduates themselves, on average, will earn higher wages and enjoy more comfortable and secure lifestyles. They live longer, are less likely to be teen parents and are less likely to commit crimes, rely on government health care, or use other public services such as food stamps or housing assistance.

At the same time, the nation benefits from their increased purchasing power, collects higher tax receipts and sees higher levels of worker productivity.

“From the implementation of the stimulus bill, to the federal budget and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Congress has several opportunities to fix the nation’s high schools,” Wise said.

The High Cost of High School Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate High Schools is available at www.all4ed.org/files/HighCost.pdf.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4186 ext. 25. Read her newsblog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.