The Truth About Dropouts

A new study sheds light on the complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, lives of dropouts--and offers advice on how to help them stay in school.

For some people, the term “dropout” conjures up images of students who are lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to put in the time and effort necessary to complete high school. But a new report recently released by America’s Promise Alliance paints a much more complex picture.

Titled “Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” the report is based on research conducted by the Center for Promise at Tufts University. Researchers conducted interviews with 200 young people and surveyed 3,000 people ages 18 to 25, making it the largest study of its kind about dropouts.

Roughly 20% of American students who enter high school fail to graduate—which translates into a graduation rate that ranks the United States at 22nd out of 27 developed countries. “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” examines why those students are dropping out and what can be done to stymie this highly problematic trend.

Here’s an overview of the study’s findings:

Multiple factors play into a student’s decision to drop out

There is rarely one single reason why a student decides to leave high school, but rather several interrelated reasons. Study participants cited various combinations of 25 different factors that played into their decision to drop out, including:

  • Lack of support and guidance from adults
  • Incarceration
  • Death in the family
  • Health challenges in the family
  • Gangs
  • School safety
  • School policies
  • Peer influences
  • Becoming a parent

Students who drop out are often living in toxic environments

Participants in the study’s group interviews described living in “toxic” environments in which they experienced violence, health problems, or “unsafe, unsupportive, or disrespectful school climates and policies.” Many participants talked about being physically and emotionally abused—both at home and at school, sadly. Others reported that they had been homeless, served time in juvenile detention, or had to serve as their family’s primary caretaker or wage-earner—all factors that can make high school completion a seemingly impossible challenge.

Young people search for supportive connections (for better or worse)

The study found that young people seek supportive connections from adults, and if they fail to find them, they often end up making poor decisions. On the other side of the coin is the fact that they may find the connections they’re looking for in peers or other individuals who don’t have their best interest at heart, such as gangs or drug users.

On a more positive note, however, the study also found that 41% of respondents cited “someone encouraged me” as their reason for returning to school—meaning “once a dropout, always a dropout” doesn’t have to be the case.

Dropouts are resilient, but they need support

Dropping out isn’t necessarily indicative of a student’s lack of grit. On the contrary, the study found that many dropouts are especially resilient and that “persistence, personal agency, courage, and optimism about the future shone through in the interview participants’ stories.” But they need the help of supportive individuals in order to succeed.

So what can you do to help students stay in (or return to) school? The report ends with several insightful recommendations:

  1. Listen. Take the time to truly understand what they’re going through.
  2. Surround the highest-need young people with extra supports. Communities (and schools) should develop early warning systems to help identify the students who are going to need extra attention and support in order to graduate.
  3. Create a cadre of community navigators to help students stay in school. Many students lack the support of their parents or other family members, so communities and schools should find ways to step in and give them the guidance they need.
  4. Follow the evidence. Do some research, find out what has worked for other communities and schools, and follow suit. And once you find something that works for your students, spread the word.
  5. Place young people in central roles in designing and implementing solutions that will work for their peers. Young people are highly impressionable and easily influenced by one another. Give your students a sense of purpose by creating opportunities for them to share their experiences and participate in efforts to boost graduation rates.

For an eye-opening look at some real-life dropouts, watch the video below, then share your thoughts on this important topic in the comments. You can also continue the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #NotDropouts.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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