Archived Story

Curbing dropout rate will improve country

Published 10:10am Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

When I joined the U.S. Army in 1989, people enlisting had to have a high school diploma or an equivalent if they wanted to become a soldier. The ones in basic training who didn’t have a diploma or already have a graduation equivalent, such as the GED, had to study, take and pass a GED test before the end of basic training.

In fact, drill sergeants at Fort Jackson, S.C., were fond of saying, when dressing down a soldier who failed to grasp a simple concept, “It doesn’t take a GED to know how to (insert simple concept here).”

On the other hand, the term was used sarcastically by soldiers for something convoluted: “It practically requires a GED to know how to (insert convoluted concept here).” And I still utter the phrase from time to time more than 20 years later.

But nowadays, the branches of the military pretty much require a high school diploma. They each allow small quantities of people with equivalents in, but they must score well on entrance exams. The best bet to get in without a diploma these days is to acquire 15 college credits first.

The military is adjusting with the times. So have many workplaces. And so should American schools.

The concept that students must go to eighth grade but then have the option to drop out is old-fashioned. It’s a 19th century notion. Students in the 21st century should be mandated to attend all the way through 12th grade. If there is one way we can make sure children get a better life is to make sure they do not drop out. Remove the option altogether.

Dropout rates are worse than you think. According to the America’s Promise Alliance, the graduation rate in the United States is 75.5 percent.

Think about that. One in four students drops out before finishing high school — more than 1 million students a year. Wow! Unthinkable. How come we, in our never-ending quest to improve schools, haven’t outlawed dropping out already?

As America struggles to recover from a recession and as more new jobs in new fields arise, consider how many people simply won’t be able to get a job because they aren’t qualified — often stemming to the fact they dropped out when they were younger. Because they made a bad choice as a teenager, they become a burden to the tax system rather than a contributor to the tax system.

The American Graduate Project, an effort to change truancy requirements, says this: “High school graduates are more likely to be employed — and make higher incomes when they work. High school dropouts are consistently more likely to face unemployment, by rates 10 percentage points or higher than their more highly educated peers. College graduates earn at least $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school dropouts. High school graduates are three times less likely to live in poverty than their counterparts who did not graduate.”

The two nonprofit organizations say people with high school diplomas are far more likely to be engaged in the community, have a stable job and far less likely to need services from the social safety net and far less likely to commit crimes. High school graduates have higher life expectancies.

There once was a time when America was the world’s manufacturer that a person could drop out, get a job at a factory, a mill or as a clerk and make a decent wage. Those days are gone and aren’t coming back.

Most jobs today require skills that high school teaches, whether it is industrial arts classes, mathematics, computers, skillful writing or even developing well-founded concentration habits. Most importantly, high schools excel at teaching comprehension of the grown-up world — the ability to follow instructions well, whether in writing or verbally. Lose that and you lose a lot.

The problem is investing money. Requiring people to go to schools until they earn a diploma without turning our high schools simply into diploma mills will require funding for remedial education. But our colleges and universities already are dropping millions to teach remedial skills to incoming students who did get diplomas but couldn’t bridge the ever-shifting education gap between high school and college, according to various Associated Press reports on the subject.

Moreover, think of all the tax dollars saved in the long run by having a more productive and less burdensome populace. Sure, we save in the short term by letting a kid drop out of school, but we absolutely pay for that in the long run.

President Barack Obama in January spoke about raising the truancy requirement to 18 in his State of the Union address. Since then, only one state, Maryland, has raised the dropout age, first to 17 in 2015 and then to 18 in 2017. Otherwise, the proposal has fallen flat and unfortunately now sits on the back burner for the White House and for state legislatures.

I look forward to a day when we wake up and adjust the education system to the 21st century. It’s easy to focus on the ones who want an education. The difficult path is teaching the ones who will need it the most.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.