Study Finds a Higher Rate of Imprisonment Among Dropouts
On any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates, according to a new study of the effects of dropping out of school in an America where demand for low-skill workers is plunging.
The picture is even bleaker for African-Americans, with nearly one in four young black male dropouts incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized on an average day, the study said. That compares with about one in 14 young, male, white, Asian or Hispanic dropouts.
Researchers at Northeastern University used census and other government data to carry out the study, which tracks the employment, workplace, parenting and criminal justice experiences of young high school dropouts.
“We’re trying to show what it means to be a dropout in the 21st century United States,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern, who headed a team of researchers that prepared the report. “It’s one of the country’s costliest problems. The unemployment, the incarceration rates — it’s scary.”
A coalition of civil rights and public education advocacy groups and a network of alternative schools in Chicago commissioned the report as part of a push for new educational opportunities for the nation’s 6.2 million high school dropouts.
“The dropout rate is driving the nation’s increasing prison population, and it’s a drag on America’s economic competitiveness,” said Marc H. Morial, the former New Orleans mayor who is president of the National Urban League, one of the groups in the coalition that commissioned the report. “This report makes it clear that every American pays a cost when a young person leaves school without a diploma.”
The report puts the collective cost to the nation over the working life of each high school dropout at $292,000. Mr. Sum said that figure took into account lost tax revenues, since dropouts earn less and therefore pay less in taxes than high school graduates. It also includes the costs of providing food stamps and other aid to dropouts and of incarcerating those who turn to crime.
Daniel J. Losen, a senior associate at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the study was consistent with other economic studies of the dropout crisis, though he said the methodology of its cost-benefit analysis “lacked transparency.”
“The report’s strength is that it reveals in clear terms that there’s a real crisis with the high numbers of young, especially minority males, who drop out of school and wind up incarcerated,” Mr. Losen said.
Previous studies have come up with estimates of the same order of magnitude on the social cost of low graduation rates. A 2007 study by Teachers College, Princeton and City University of New York researchers, for instance, estimated that society could save $209,000 in prison and other costs for every potential dropout who could be helped to complete high school.
The new report, in its analysis of 2008 unemployment rates, found that 54 percent of dropouts ages 16 to 24 were jobless, compared with 32 percent for high school graduates of the same age, and 13 percent for those with a college degree.
Again, the statistics were worse for young African-American dropouts, whose unemployment rate last year was 69 percent, compared with 54 percent for whites and 47 percent for Hispanics. The unemployment rate among young Hispanics was lower, the report said, because included in that category were many illegal immigrants, who compete successfully for jobs with native-born youths.
The unemployment rates cited for all groups have climbed several points in 2009 because of the recession, Mr. Sum said.
Young female dropouts were nine times more likely to have become single mothers than young women who went on to earn college degrees, the report said, citing census data for 2006 and 2007.
The number of unmarried young women having children has increased sharply in some communities in part, Mr. Sum said, because large numbers of young men have dropped out of school and are jobless year round. As a result, young women do not view them as having the wherewithal to support a family.
“None of these guys can afford to own a home, they just don’t have any money,” he said. “And as a result, any time they father a child it’s out of wedlock. It wasn’t like this 30 years ago.”
He cited his hometown, Gary, Ind., as an example. “Back in the 1970s, my friends in Gary would quit school in senior year and go to work at U.S. Steel and make a good living, and young guys in Michigan would go to work in an auto plant,” he said. “You just can’t do that anymore. Today, you have a lot of dropouts who are jobless year round.”