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