Any attempt to increase the number of college graduates must address the fact that one in five students who begin ninth grade do not graduate on time, if at all. Lacking either a diploma or an equivalency certificate, youth who don’t complete their high school educations will find participating in the workforce difficult and accessing college nearly impossible.
A new study, “Don’t Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young People Who Leave High School Before Graduation,” examines the motivations of this misunderstood group. The research, which includes 200+ interviews and over 3,000 survey responses, was conducted and published by America’s Promise Alliance and the Center for Promise at Tufts University.
Against popular wisdom that dropouts are merely bored by school or lack long-term focus, the report concludes that most young people who leave school have a personal desire to graduate. Among the key factors that drive youth to drop out include ongoing violence in their home or neighborhood or assuming responsibilities after a family health trauma, parental incarceration or personal homelessness.
The report authors note that most students who left school early sought out opportunities to stay or otherwise complete high school despite their circumstances. Jonathan Zaff, a report co-author and executive director of the Center for Promise, noted the unmet need for mentorship among at-risk youth as a major issue. Speaking to NBC News, he said that if one question could predict a student’s likelihood of leaving school, it was a negative answer to this: “Is there an adult in your community you can turn to for help?”
The authors came away impressed by the grit demonstrated by youth who leave school early. In tackling the financial and family problems that plagued them, researchers saw these youth demonstrate personal agency, problem-solving skills and positive life goal formation. According to the report, among students 18 to 25 who had previously left school, 64% had gone back to complete high school, at least half were employed and 18 percent had completed at least some college-level classes.
In fact, so strong is the desire of most of these students to complete their educations that the report cautions others to avoid the controversial term “dropout,” a description that most of the respondents said did not describe their experience or their future plans to acquire more education.
“Stopping school” is how high-risk Arizona teens described their actions to Paul Luna, president and CEO of the Helios Education Foundation, which funds postsecondary access initiatives in Arizona and Florida. In an essay appended to the report, Luna suggests using the term “opportunity youth” instead of “dropout.”
“They are called opportunity youth because of the powerful opportunity they represent for the economic vitality of our nation,” writes Luna. “Every student must be part of a pipeline of future leaders that will help secure the economic vitality of the nation.”
To read an executive summary of the report, click here.
To download the full report as a PDF, click here.
America’s Promise Alliance also produced a short documentary Don’t Call Them Dropouts, including interviews with students who left school. A preview is available here on YouTube.