The Hidden Impact of High School Dropouts

The Hidden Impact of High School Dropouts James C. Wilson, Ed.D. Note: I wrote this blog about five years ago and the official dropout rates in California have dropped precipitously. The reality is the state, in concert with school districts, have colluded in hiding the real dropout rate by including GED, High School Diploma, and strip mall charter school students as graduates and left out special education and students from other countries. Some districts also allow “D” grades to count as passing when that grade actually is defined as failing. This process masks the real dropout rate, which is about what it was before making the projections below still generally accurate. Most San Diegans do not realize the enormous impact high school dropouts have on our city. The California Dropout Research Project at the University of California Santa Barbara has estimated the lifetime cost of one class or cohort of dropouts for the state at $24.2 billion. These are real criminal justice, incarceration and victim costs. The researchers also project that one year’s crop of dropouts will go on to commit 113,954 violent crimes. The California Dropout Research Project has also made projections for San Diego. For one class of San Diego city schools’ dropouts, lifetime costs were projected at $534 million. And the researchers project that these dropouts will commit 3,879 violent crimes. For the full high school population, multiply these numbers by four and the cost is over $2 billion and 15,000 violent crimes. The reason these numbers are shocking is because the dropout issue has been kept under wraps. There is no sense of crisis from our elected officials to solve the dropout crisis. No one tells you that we have 2.5 million people in prison in America and 70 percent of them are high school dropouts. Add an additional 4.5 million who are on parole or probation for a total of 7 million in America’s criminal justice system. We have more people in prison than any other country in the world. Americans are not inherently more prone to crime and violence than other countries. It is the American educational system that does not provide a better life trajectory for its students. Let me give you the real numbers. The district’s latest dropout study shows that in 2004-05, San Diego city schools enrolled 11,509 students in the ninth grade. Four years later, they graduated 6,769. They lost 4,740 students along the way. Some students left town, but others assuredly came to town. This cumulative dropout number is called the attrition rate. Nationally, the highest dropout rate occurs in the ninth grade. Now imagine the number of dropouts or attritions over the four-year time frame of high school. We have four times 4,740, or 18,960 presently in the process of dropping out of San Diego’s high schools. Add the previous four-year cohorts and there are 37,920 dropouts in San Diego between the ages of 14 and 22. Add the previous four cohorts, and you get 56,880 dropouts between 14 and 26 in San Diego. If these horrific numbers don’t get your attention, nothing will. There is a remedy that over time can reduce these high school dropout numbers. Career academies graduate 95 percent of their students, including disadvantaged students. These small schools within high schools use career themes to engage their students in learning. Every career academy graduate completes a sequence of career technical education courses and leaves high school with an employable skill. If we can implement many more career academies in San Diego, we can reduce the dropout rate by as much as 75 percent. The California Dropout Research Project projects that the San Diego can save $267 million per cohort by reducing the high school dropout rate by half. That is a savings of more than $1 billion for a four-year group over their lifetimes. Also, reducing the dropout rate by half per one cohort of San Diego city schools would project the reduction of 435 homicides and aggravated assaults over these student’s lifetimes. Again, when you multiply 435 by four, you get 1,740 fewer assaults and murders by the four-year group over their lifetimes. The potential savings are enormous, both in terms of money and violent crime. Career academies address the root cause of the dropout issue, which is necessary to obtain these savings and to obtain the reductions in crime. Piecemeal bandages in the form of adult education, community colleges, probation, and incarceration do not work. That is what we have now and they clearly have limited efficacy. The question is, does San Diego have the leadership needed to put the remedy of career academies in place?

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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