Focus On Helping Youths From Low-Income Families

By Christopher Jepsen, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Riverside Press-Enterprise on June 11, 2006

Many students drop out of high school in California. How many? We can only guess. The California Department of Education estimates that 13 percent of students who enter high school do not graduate. Two studies released last month, using different approaches, come up with vastly different numbers -- 20 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Unfortunately, the disagreement about the exact number of dropouts -- a debate that has political undertones -- risks sidetracking us from answering the two imperative questions: Who is dropping out of high school, and how can we prevent it?

A recent Public Policy Institute of California statewide survey (April 2006) found that two-thirds of Californians believe the high school dropout rate is a big problem. And they're right.

The wages of high school dropouts have been declining for decades. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, dropouts earn more than $4,000 less annually than another low-earning group -- high school graduates who never attend college. Moreover, dropouts' economic prospects will only grow dimmer as the U.S. economy becomes more and more dependent on technology-driven, high-skill jobs.

So who is dropping out? While the debate has largely focused on race and ethnicity alone, these are not the main factors. Family background -- specifically, low levels of parental education and low family income -- are the real determinants.

In a recent PPIC report, my coauthors and I found major disparities in the dropout rate between U.S.-born whites and other U.S.-born groups, but this is only the case because more blacks and Hispanics represent lower-income, less-educated families.

In other words, when we compare white students to black and Hispanic students with similar family backgrounds, the difference in the dropout rate virtually disappears.

The distinction is important because strategies aimed at reducing the dropout rate should specifically target students based on their families' resources. For example, programs could focus on students whose parents have not completed high school.

The Advancement Via Individual Determination program is a good example. It provides academic support for students with limited family resources who want to go to college. Most AVID participants not only graduate from high school, they also attend college.

Another potential strategy is to increase the number of school support staff, particularly academic counselors, in schools with large numbers of at-risk students. California has the nation's worst student-to-counselor ratio, with an average of nearly 500 high school students per counselor. According to The American Counseling Association, the recommended ratio is 250 students per counselor.

Policy challenges surrounding the state's high school dropout rate are significant enough without getting bogged down in disputes about the precise number of dropouts -- disputes that often have to do with political or special interest agendas.

For example, even though PPIC's education survey finds that Californians are in favor of spending more money on counselors in low-income areas, it also finds that, by and large, they want somebody else to pay it.

We can only tax smokers and high-income individuals so much. This is a policy paradox worthy of serious and immediate attention.


Educational Progress Across Immigrant Generations in California

PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on Education, April 2006

School Resources and Academic Standards in California: Lessons from the Schoolhouse