Dropping Out

By Dr. Eugene Maier

The future for high school dropouts these days is dismal. Here in Oregon, according to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed as high school graduates and, if employed, earn 30 percent less than high school graduates; and they comprise 80% of the adult prison population.

It wasn't always that way. Three of my father's brothers, his sister and their spouses were dropouts, but that didn't prevent them from earning honest, albeit modest, livings. His brother-in-law and one of his brothers were maintenance workers for the local water district, another brother started a successful roofing business and the third became harbormaster of a fishing port. In the eyes of my German-Russian immigrant grandparents, there wasn't much point to school once one learned to read and write and completed Lutheran confirmation instruction—unless one studied for the ministry, which is what my father did.

My mother, too, was a dropout. An oldest child, she left school after the eighth grade to help tend a brood of siblings, but in her lifetime she worked competently in a number of different positions: sales clerk, dental aide, laboratory assistant—acquiring whatever training was required on the job.

But there's a different social and economic climate today. More often than not, dropouts are viewed as social outcasts. And they are becoming economic outcasts also. Increasingly, employers are requiring a high school diploma, whether or not it's relevant. At the same time, jobs that pay more than a poverty-level wage are diminishing. (One 1999 study found that 77% of the jobs in Oregon did not pay the amount it takes a family of one adult and two children to meet their needs without assistance.)

So, what should be done? The popular answer is to eliminate dropouts as if, somehow, that will increase employment, boost the average wage and reduce the prison population. It might, but I doubt it. The nation's unemployment rate and average wage aren't determined by the high school graduation rate. If everyone in the United States graduated from high school, the most likely effect is that more high school graduates would be unemployed and the average wage earned of those graduates who are employed would drop. Also, dropping out of school and being imprisoned doesn't mean that one causes the other. They may both well derive from a common circumstance that has little to do with the amount of one's schooling. Attempting to reduce crime by eliminating dropouts may be as futile as trying to cure a disease by eliminating one of its symptoms, and have little effect on the prison population other than raising its educational level.

I suggest we take a more realistic approach. There will always be school dropouts, and those who might as well drop out. Instead of striving to eliminate dropouts, let us eliminate the barriers dropouts face in trying to make their way in today's society. That doesn't mean we quit encouraging and counseling youths to take advantage of whatever educational opportunities present themselves, but it does mean that we treat those equitably who find formal schooling untenable or unbearable.

To begin with, we could quit requiring high school diplomas for jobs for which they are not essential. True, the technological world of today is quite different from the world of my parents, but there are still plenty of jobs that can be capably performed by a literate person with a measure of common sense. And there are still many trades and occupations that can be learned on the job, indeed, may best be learned on the job without all the trappings of high school.

We could also attack the imbalances in our economic system so that those who fill the less glamorous jobs in our society don't have to struggle with poverty level wages. The disparateness in earnings between the highest paid and lowest paid employees in corporate America borders on the bizarre. Changing the educational system isn't going to cure all the ills of America. Dropouts trapped in jobs paying poverty-level wages, unemployed or imprisoned are symptoms of societal problems that are far broader than those that can be addressed by tinkering with school programs. But we are a resourceful nation; if we set our minds to it we can establish the conditions that enables one, as it did a generation ago, to drop out of school without being dropped out of society.