For most high school dropouts, reality sets in sooner or later: Without a high school diploma, their prospects in life are limited at best.
A study released Thursday confirms that many California dropouts give school another try. But the California Dropout Research Project also reports that even dropouts who go back to school appear to stand little chance of success in college. And in an economy that increasingly prizes academic success, the outlook is bleak for those who don't return to school at all.
"Kids who drop out of school are at risk in general -- we know that," said Russell Rumberger, a professor at UC Santa Barbara who leads the dropout project.
But, he added, he was alarmed by the study's finding that one in three of the students who dropped out of 10th grade in 2004 were doing nothing four years later -- not going to school or working.
"That is a disturbing number for our state," Rumberger said.
The brief statistical study is the 39th report issued by the dropout project, which was formed in December 2006 for a limited operating period. Funded by four major philanthropic organizations, the project is intended to give educators and legislators the background they need to attack the state's serious dropout problem.
The new report, based on previously published national data, found that roughly one in five California students who dropped out of 10th grade in 2004 returned to school and earned their diploma within four years. A slightly smaller percentage earned a high school equivalency degree, or GED.
In all, 54% received some sort of high school degree or were still in school working toward that goal, the study showed.
But while roughly half of the dropouts were at least making a stab at finishing high school, few were progressing past that. Ninety percent had either never enrolled in college or had enrolled and dropped out. By contrast, 60% of their peers who didn't drop out of high school in their sophomore year were enrolled in college four years later.
"These data are foreboding," said Russlynn Ali, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit that is an advocate for improving education, especially for disadvantaged youth. She said they suggest "a very bleak future for California."
The picture presented in the report of California dropouts looks quite similar to figures for the nation as a whole, with one significant exception: More than twice as many dropouts nationwide earned a GED certificate.
Rumberger said he couldn't explain that trend. He noted that many educators and economists believe that GED certificates are of limited value -- better than nothing, but less of a boost than a high school diploma.
Ali is among those who discount the GED. "I don't think those other states should be proud that they have more kids completing their GED than California," she said.
As the dropout project winds down over the next year, Rumberger said, the lesson it carries for policymakers is that the high school dropout problem is highly complex and will require a systemwide response, beginning as early as preschool.
Dropping out is "more of a process than an event . . . and there are a lot of telltale signs along the way," he said. The biggest signposts are failure in middle and high school, but the project's data suggest that the problems that lead students to drop out can begin as early as first grade.
On the plus side, he said, "It means there are a lot of places in a child's school career where we could intervene to help."
But it also means that there is no simple fix. "It really is going to take some systemic change," Rumberger said. "Anything short of that is not going to be that successful ultimately."