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The High Costs of Dropping Out : Study Details Economic Losses of Not Finishing School

October 19, 1986|JOHN TAGG | Tagg is a San Marcos, Calif., free-lance writer and former speech and writing instructor at Cal State Northridge and UC Berkeley. and

Another school year has resolutely begun, and this is probably a good time to think about how it will end. If past performance proves to be an accurate guide, out of every four students who entered first grade this fall, one will not be graduated from high school. That one will probably join the ranks of the adult illiterates.

Prof. James S. Catterall of the UCLA Graduate School of Education has recently published the results of his study of the costs of dropping out of school. It should be required reading for every high school freshman. Those who can't read should have it read to them.

Estimated Loss of Tax Revenues

In 1972, Henry M. Levin calculated that the total loss of lifetime earnings, nationwide, from male dropouts aged 25 to 34 was $235 billion and the loss of tax revenues to all levels of government was $71 billion. Catterall found that "even when adjusted for price changes, the costs of dropping out today are a third higher than those reported in 1972."

He said he found that the projected loss of earnings to society for a single high school class, 1981, would reach $183.4 billion, with lost tax revenues of $60 billion. That's for a single class.

If those figures are accurate it means that the loss from those students currently in elementary school (Grades 1 through 6), if present trends continue, will amount to more than a trillion dollars. That's more than was spent during the entire decade of the '70s for all schools, public and private, kindergarten through Grade 12.

For the Los Angeles Unified School District, as an example of a large urban district, Catterall calculates that the economic loss attributable to the dropouts in a single school class will be $3.2 billion. He also estimates that in 1985 the dropout phenomenon cost local governments in Los Angeles County $488 million in public services.

These figures of aggregate costs are based on calculations of individual costs to individual dropouts. On the average, males who finish high school will earn in a lifetime $266,000 more than dropouts. The comparable figure for females is $199,000, and probably rising fast.

It is fashionable to say these days, and perfectly true, that the dollars aren't important, that the human cost is what really counts. But dollars, in this case, are a relevant measure of the human cost, and one which illustrates the magnitude of the difficulty. These figures are relevant and meaningful, without a doubt, to those who make the choice to drop out of school.

Paying the Price

Before any student leaves school for good, someone, somewhere, should sit down and say: "Look, I know you don't like school much, that you feel it gets in the way of more interesting things, that you don't think it's doing you much good. You have a right, if you choose to exercise it, to walk away from the whole sordid business. But if you do it'll cost you about a quarter of a million dollars. If you drop out, you'll pay the price."

Most potential dropouts could reasonably respond to that argument: "Come on! I've never seen that kind of money in my whole life!"

The answer is: "Right. And if you drop out, you never will."

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