Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery
John H. Tyler Magnus Lofstrom


In a world in which education is becoming ever more important, finding solutions to the dropout problem is one of the most pressing issues facing America's high schools. A first step on this path is to accumulate data that will allow for a more accurate depiction of the dropout problem. Most states now have data systems in place that assign unique identification numbers to public school students. These student IDs can be used to link students to school enrollment and graduation data, providing a way to produce accurate enrollment and graduation statistics for students who remain in public schools in the state. These state-by-state systems rarely allow the accurate tracking of a student who leaves a school in one state to re-enroll in another state—a problem given the relatively high dropout rates associated with student mobility. At the same time, states are still likely to be able to obtain rather accurate graduation and dropout statistics because the prevalence of across-state moves for school-leaving-age students is relatively low. The ideal solution would be a national student identifier akin to Social Security numbers that would allow for dropout statistics from the national to the state to the individual school level.

Even if the United States were to move to a national student ID system, it would still be necessary to settle on how the GED credential should be viewed in computing dropout statistics. Should students who are enrolled in high school in a GED Option program be counted in enrollment statistics? Should students in these programs who get their GED while still enrolled in high school be counted as high school graduates or as dropouts or as partially-weighted high school graduates? How should students who drop out of school and obtain out-of-school GEDs "on time" for their graduation cohort be counted when it comes to computing dropout rates? Given the many students who obtain a GED, answers to these questions will have a large effect on ultimate dropout statistics. Given the evidence indicating that dropouts with the GED credential do not do as well in the labor market, or pursue postsecondary schooling to the same extent, as traditional high school graduates, treating GED holders as equivalent to high school graduates seems inappropriate.92

Finally, what is to be done to lower dropout rates and increase high school graduation rates? The research base for answering this question is woefully inadequate. Although hundreds of dropout-prevention programs exist, from small, discrete programs to whole-school reform models, little hard evidence reveals what does and does not work to decrease the probability of dropping out. The direction for future research is thus clear: more rigorous studies of dropout-prevention strategies are needed. Studies that take advantage of lottery assignment mechanisms in programs that tend to have more applicants than places can produce powerful results that can withstand scrutiny. Likewise, pilot programs can often be designed to generate a rigorous and convincing evaluation, as did the previously discussed ALAS program in San Diego.

Increasing the minimum school-leaving age is another possible, partial, policy solution to the dropout problem. States vary both in minimum school-leaving age, between sixteen and eighteen, and in the extent to which they offer exemptions to the rule based on, for example, parental consent or student-related work reasons, or both.93 Research has quite consistently shown that students in states with a higher school-leaving age stay in school longer.94 But before concluding that all states should raise to eighteen the age at which students may legally leave school, it is necessary to recognize that the most recent research indicates that raising the minimum drop-out age above sixteen will not fix the dropout problem. Philip Oreopoulos estimates that such a change would decrease the dropout rate about 1.4 percentage points.95 He also finds that enforcing the school-leaving age is a factor and recommends that "if states are serious about lowering dropout rates through compulsory schooling, they need to better enforce these laws." Overall, minimum school-leaving-age policies appear to be a tool that, used properly, can have some, but not a large, effect on dropout rates.

Although researchers have much to learn about which dropout-prevention programs work, they do know that trying to keep students in school is not cheap. They have also learned, however, that the costs to society of each student who fails to graduate from high school are high. What lies ahead is learning not only how to keep students in school, but also how to muster the public will to fund and support programs that are proven effective in doing so.