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The cost of dropping out

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The following data are from national studies of the impact of dropouts.


  • Median earnings in 2003 for a non-graduate: $15,610. This compares with $23,673 for a high school graduate (including GED); $30,576 for some college; $30,936 for associate’s and $40,588 for bachelor’s degree; $51,116 for master’s degree. (U.S. Department of Labor)
  • 55 percent of people with no high school diploma or GED reported no earnings in the 1999 Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census, compared to 25 percent of those with at least a high school diploma or GED. (Jay P. Greene, “High School Graduate Rates in the United States,” Manhattan Institute, Black Alliance for Educational Options, April 2002)
  • Each year’s class of dropouts will have a net cost to the nation of over $200 billion during their lifetimes in lost earnings and unrealized tax revenue. (National Association of School Psychologists: School Dropout Prevention Information and Strategies for Parents, 1998)


  • Employment chances of 20- to 24-year-old dropouts: six in 10. (Educational Testing Service, “One Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities,” 2005)
  • Employment chances of 16- to 19-year-old dropouts: four in 10.
  • High school dropouts had a 52 percent employment rate in 1999, compared with 71 percent for high school graduates, and 83 percent for college graduates. (2000 Census)
  • Women with less than a high school diploma in 2004 had an unemployment rate of 10 percent; with a high school diploma, 4.9 percent; some college but no degree, 4.7 percent; bachelor’s degree and higher, 2.7 percent. (U.S. Department of Labor)

Criminal justice

  • Dropouts as percentage of prison population: nearly 50 percent. ("One Third of a Nation”)
  • 16 percent of all high school dropouts between the ages of 18 and 24 (and 30 percent of all African American dropouts in this age group) are incarcerated or on parole. (National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families)

Other social impact

  • More than 75 percent of White and Asian students completed high school with a diploma. Graduation rates for Black, American Indian, and Hispanic students are close to fifty-fifty – 50, 51, and 53 percent respectively. (Urban Institute and Harvard Civil Rights Project, “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth Are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis,” 2004)
  • Dropouts comprise 50 percent of all heads of households receiving public assistance. (Wendy Schwartz, “School Dropouts: New Information about an Old Problem,” ERIC Digest)
  • Approximately one in every three teen mothers is a dropout. (National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families)