Dropout Rates in the United States: 1994
The decisions that are made during and soon after high school affect the life course of each individual. During these years students make judgments that will affect how they will pass from adolescence to adulthood. Social scientists have long known that the timing and sequencing of these early transitions have a profound effect on the lives of these young people./20 The traditional sequence is 1) complete school, 2) go to work, and 3) get married and raise children./21 Completion of high school is the first critical step in this sequence. Those who do not complete this step face difficulties in making successful steps in the transition to adult life./22 Different paths to adulthood may result in different consequences in adulthood.
Over the two-year period from 1992 to 1994, members of the eighth-grade class of 1988 (NELS:88) followed different paths as they entered adulthood: a number of them enrolled in postsecondary education programs, some of them either completed or enrolled in GED or other alternative certification programs, a number of young adults entered the labor force and became wage earners, some of them married, and some had children.
This analysis examines the immediate outcomes of different methods of high school completion on the life course events of young adults, with a consideration of whether there are differences between males and females or students with different racial or ethnic identities or different socioeconomic backgrounds./23 Examined first are differences in high school completion status, followed by an examination of differences in the subsequent experiences of these young adults./24
While there may be many pathways to adulthood in the United States, the first step is almost always completion of high school. In August 1992, 84 percent of the eighth grade class of 1988 had completed high school most with a high school diploma (table 17). Two years later, about 50 percent of those still enrolled in high school at the end of the summer in 1992 had completed high school by earning a diploma or receiving a GED. About 19 percent of dropouts in August 1992 completed while another 31 percent were re-enrolled in a program leading to high school completion.
Consequently, by 1994, approximately 87 percent of the 1988 cohort of eighth graders had made the first step to adulthood and had completed high school or an equivalency program (81 percent and 6 percent, respectively). An additional 5 percent reported continuing work towards high school completion. The remaining 7 percent were dropouts they had not completed high school and were not working towards completion (table 18).
These patterns do not vary appreciably between male and female youth/25, but there are some differences between racial and ethnic groups/26 and between youth from different socioeconomic backgrounds. In particular, 84 and 91 percent of the white and Asian youth received regular diplomas, compared with about 72 percent of black, 73 percent of Hispanic, and 62 percent of Native American youth. When GED or other alternative certifications are taken into account, about 90 percent of white and Asian youth and about 80 percent of black and Hispanic, and 72 percent of Native American youth have completed a high school program. In addition, the percentage of youth who completed a high school program increases from 73 percent at the lowest socioeconomic level to 90 percent at the middle level and to 98 percent at the highest level. Conversely, the percentage still enrolled and the percentage who are dropouts decreases as the socioeconomic level increases. While 10 percent of the youth in the lowest socioeconomic group were still enrolled, 18 percent are dropouts. The 10 percent at the middle and 2 percent at the highest socioeconomic levels who have not completed a high school program are evenly divided between those still enrolled and those who are dropouts.
The next step in the transition to adulthood for the majority of high school graduates is immediate entry into some sort of postsecondary education or training. Over a decade ago, in 1980, approximately one-half of high school completers went immediately into college (49.3 percent), while in 1990 almost 61 percent had done so./27 Not all students go immediately into a postsecondary program, but three-quarters of the young adults in the eighth grade cohort of 1988 who completed high school with a regular diploma participated in a postsecondary education program/28 at some point between 1992 and 1994 (73 percent), and the majority of high school graduates were in degree programs (56 percent) (table 19).
In the short term, at least, compared to high school graduates, relatively fewer of the students who pursued an alternative path to high school completion by getting an alternative credential participated in any postsecondary education programs-only one-third of these students participated in any postsecondary education program (33 percent). In the past these GED recipients have purportedly not enjoyed the postsecondary success of their peers who held regular diplomas./29 Nevertheless, about one-half of the GED recipients in the eighth-grade class of 1988 who enrolled in postsecondary education were in degree programs (about 16 percent of the GED recipients).
Of those 1988 eighth graders who did not complete high school by 1994, only about 10 percent went on to some form of postsecondary education (table 19). About 7 percent of the dropouts and 11 percent of those still working towards high school completion reported some postsecondary education by 1994. And, the postsecondary participation of young adults without a high school credential was primarily limited to non-degree licensing and certification programs although differences were not significant. This limitation makes sense given that many of these types of non-degree programs have GED preparation as a preliminary step towards certification or licensure./30
In the vast majority of cases, failure to complete high school precludes students making the transition to postsecondary education. Most, but not all, of those who fail to complete school will have to delay any postsecondary education until they achieve this milestone. Furthermore, a delay in making this transition has consequences for later success in that delayed entry appears to carry with it a low likelihood of eventual completion of postsecondary education./31 Students who start postsecondary education immediately after high school are more likely to complete a bachelor's degree than are students who delayed entry by only a year.
Black, Hispanic, and Native American young adults were less likely to enroll in postsecondary education programs than white and Asian youths (table 20). Most of the variability occurs among regular high school diploma recipients without any postsecondary participation, varying from 51 percent to 14 percent, depending on race or ethnic group membership. In contrast, within each race-ethnicity group about two-thirds of the GED recipients and about 90 percent of dropouts and those still working towards high school completion did not participate in postsecondary education programs.
The difference in postsecondary enrollment patterns between regular high school graduates and those who did not complete a regular high school diploma is repeated when socioeconomic background is taken into account (table 21). Again, the most variation in postsecondary program participation occurs among regular high school diploma recipients; within this group, those in the lower socioeconomic group are less likely to enroll in postsecondary programs than students at higher socioeconomic levels and this pattern is repeated within each race-ethnicity group./32 Regardless of socioeconomic status, young adults who did not complete a regular high school diploma are far less likely to participate in postsecondary education.
Low postsecondary enrollment rates are shared by young males and females who do not complete a regular high school program (table 22). The relatively small sex difference apparent in the aggregate is due to differences in enrollment patterns among high school diploma recipients in the lowest and middle socioeconomic groups.
While the pattern of school-work-marriage may once have described the "normal" sequencing of events on the path to adulthood, this ordering clearly does not describe the life course of many young people today. More young adults combine the roles of student and worker than ever before. For example, researchers using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Labor Market Experiences (NLSY) found that only 49 percent of undergraduate students worked in 1979 compared with 67 percent in 1986./33 More recently, research using the 1989-90 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:90) found that among undergraduates, approximately 75 percent reported working at some time during the academic year 1989-90./34
Many of the young adults in the eighth-grade cohort of 1988 also combined work with postsecondary education. About one-half (49 percent) of the young adults who completed high school with a regular diploma reported some employment in 1993 (table 23). Two-fifths of these young workers combined work with postsecondary education, and three-fifths reported work only.
Relatively more GED recipients and dropouts worked in 1993 than did high school graduates, but fewer of them combined work with postsecondary education. Nearly three-quarters of the GED recipients and dropouts worked in 1993, but only one in six of the GED recipients who worked combined work with postsecondary education and only one in twenty dropouts who worked attended a postsecondary program.
Although large percentages of the continuing high school students and dropouts reported employment in 1993, they were more likely than regular high school graduates to be either unemployed or out of the labor force./35 In 1993, only 4 percent of the regular diploma graduates neither attended a postsecondary program nor worked, compared to 25 and 27 percent of the dropouts and continuing high school students.
The data in Table 24 show that while Asian high school graduates were less likely than other students to work in 1993, the aggregate pattern, with about 50 percent of the high school diploma recipients working, holds for black, white, and Hispanic young adults.
Employment data for GED recipients, continuing high school students, and dropouts show that about 70 percent of the young adults in each of these groups are employed./36 Despite these relatively high levels of employment, black young adults are more likely to be unemployed than their white contemporaries. In fact, the percent of black young adults without a regular high school diploma who are unemployed or out of the labor force is twice as high as the comparable percentages for white and half again as high for Asian young adults (38 percent for blacks versus 17 percent for whites).
This race-ethnicity difference among young adults without regular high school diplomas is only apparent in the unemployment/out of the labor force patterns of young adults who are from families at the lowest socioeconomic level (table 25). About 41 percent of the black young adults and 33 percent of the Hispanic young adults in the lowest socioeconomic group are not in a postsecondary program or working, compared to approximately 17 percent for their white contemporaries. This difference diminishes within the middle socioeconomic group./37
For both sexes, the percent who are unemployed or not in the labor force is substantially higher among the young adults who did not have regular high school diplomas (14 percent versus 3 percent for males and 34 percent versus 4 percent for females) (table 26). However, among those without regular high school diplomas, males are more likely to work or combine postsecondary education and work (83 percent for males versus 61 percent for females); while females are more likely to be out of the labor force (24 percent for females versus 7 percent for males).
Different paths through high school may also have consequences for those not pursuing further education. For example, most studies show that both those with alternative credentials and dropouts have earnings substantially below those of regular high school graduates. Furthermore, most researchers have found few differences in employment or earnings between holders of alternative certificates and other high school dropouts./38
These findings are seen in the 1993 earnings of the eighth-grade cohort of 1988. Overall, among those not enrolled in some educational program, those with a high school diploma made substantially more than did those with either a high school equivalency certificate or no high school credential at all. Graduates earned on average $5,899 (median earnings), while alternative completers earned $2,203 and dropouts earned $2,324 (figure 5). However, this may be a function of the greater tendency of non-graduates to be unemployed or not in the labor force (see previous section). Indeed, when the sample is restricted to those who reported some income in 1993, the differences between the graduates and alternative completers is no longer statistically significant. However, while the relative difference appears to be less between high school graduates and dropouts this difference is still significant. High school completers reporting income for 1993 made about $8,900 on average, compared with only $6,800 for dropouts.
While overall there were differences in the reported income for high school completers and dropouts, these differences were not apparent when looking at completion status within sex or racial-ethnic or socioeconomic groups (tables 27 and 28). With the possible exception of the differences in income among blacks (differences which are not statistically significant), high school dropouts within each racialBethnic group earned on average no more or less than those who had completed high school. Youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds who were working and not enrolled in any educational programs made less than students from middle class backgrounds, but within these social classes, dropouts earned as much as did completers.
Without considering educational attainment, income data for Hispanic, black, and white young adults show that black members of this cohort earned less than did whites. Black median income (for those reporting income) was about $6,000, while white median income was about $9,000. In fact, black graduates on average earned less than white dropouts-black high school graduates earned $5,847 while white dropouts earned $8,828.
In 1993 there were also substantial differences in the earnings between males and females in the eighth-grade class of 1988 (at least those not enrolled in some kind of educational program). Male members of the eighth-grade class of 1988 reported earnings averaging about two-thirds higher than did females (table 28). While there were no reliable differences between the earnings of male alternative completers and dropouts, female alternative completers (those not in school) did not report earnings substantially less than female graduates./39
While research has shown the importance of the sequencing of transitional events to later adult success, the timing of these events is also important. In particular, early entry into adult roles such as spouse or parent may restrict later choices./40 For example, for young women, those who marry early are more likely to terminate their schooling and are more likely to have more children./41 After high school, those who are enrolled continuously in school are more likely to delay marriage and parenthood. As might be expected, the students who dropped out of high school or who were GED graduates were more likely to start families than students who graduated from high school. By the spring of 1994, more than one-half of the high school dropouts had at least one child compared with only 9 percent of high school graduates (table 29). Furthermore, 43 percent of the high school dropouts reported ever having been married or lived in a marriage-like arrangement compared with 13 percent of high school graduates (table 30).
Not only were dropouts more likely to have children, they were more likely to have children early; more than 60 percent of the 1992 births occurred prior to the dropouts' on-time high school completion date (August 1992) (table 31). Conversely, the students who received a regular high school diploma were less likely to have children early; only 9 percent had children by the spring of 1994 (table 29), and only about one-third of the children were born prior to an on-time high school completion (table 31).
Taken as a group, nearly half of the GED recipients, continuing high school students, and dropouts had a child during or just after their high school years and generally this percent did not vary significantly across race-ethnicity groups (table 32). In contrast, although the percent of regular high school graduates with a child was 21 percent or less in each race-ethnicity group, black and Hispanic high school graduates were two or three times as likely to have a child as their white and Asian peers.
Not surprisingly, eighth graders with low socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to have children than were their more affluent peers; 29 percent in the lowest socioeconomic group had children compared to 15 percent in the middle group and to 4 percent in the highest group (table 32). As table 32 indicates, this overall pattern is shared by white, Hispanic, and Asian young adults, with the percentages in the lowest socioeconomic group exceeding the percentages in the highest socioeconomic group in each case. The percentage for black young adults follow the same pattern; the decrease in percentages as socioeconomic status levels rise is less pronounced but still significant.
The data in table 32 also indicate that among both the high school graduates and nongraduates the percentage of young adults with children decreases as socioeconomic level increases. The pattern of a lower percent of high school graduates with children (shown in table 29) than the percent for those without a high school diploma is repeated within each socioeconomic group. And in the case of both the regular high school graduates and others, the percentage of young adults with children decreases as the socioeconomic level increases.
Females were more likely than males to report having a child by 1994 (22 versus 10 percent), and for both sexes those without high school diplomas were more likely than high school graduates to have children (table 33). Both male and female diploma recipients were less likely to have children as socioeconomic levels increased. This pattern is repeated among males without diplomas, but females without diplomas generally were more likely than males to have children.
At each socioeconomic level, one-half to two-thirds percent of women who did not graduate from high school have children (table 33); overall, 70 percent of these women had their first child prior to their on-time high school completion date (table 34). In contrast, about 39 percent of the rest of the women with children and 36 percent of all men with children had their first child before August of 1992.
There are clear differences across socioeconomic levels and race-ethnicity groups in the likelihood of having children either during or immediately after high school. But among the young adults who have children, whether the first child was born before or after the on-time high school completion date does not vary substantially across socioeconomic levels or race-ethnicity groups (table 35).
Thirteen percent of the high school graduates and 38 percent of those who did not graduate reported either being married or living in a marriage-like arrangement by 1994 (tables 30 and 36). Non-graduates among Hispanic and white young adults were more likely than black young adults to have been married or lived with a partner (48 percent for Hispanic, 44 percent for white, and 15 percent for black young adults) (table 36).
The likelihood of marriage or living with a partner soon after high school decreases as socioeconomic level increases, but the difference between high school graduates and those without a high school diploma persists at each socioeconomic level, as do the differences between Hispanic and white young adults versus black young adults in the low and middle socioeconomic levels. There are not enough cases for stable race-ethnicity estimates by high school completion status and socioeconomic status.
Young women were more likely than young men to report being ever married or living with a partner (table 37). Although young men and women who did not graduate from high school were more likely than those who graduated to report marriage or living with a partner, the sex difference occurs in both groups. The decreases noted across socioeconomic levels occur for men and women who graduated. At both the low and middle socioeconomic levels, close to one half of the young women who did not graduate from high school reported being married or living with a partner.
During the years 1992 to 1994, students from the eighth-grade class of 1988 took several passages toward adulthood. Some enrolled in college, some entered the work force, some started families, and some did a combination of all three. The first critical step for these young people was graduation from high school and the data seem to indicate that many grasped the importance of this step. By August of 1994, 81 percent had graduated with a diploma and another 6 percent had received some sort of alternative credential 87 percent thus had completed high school in some fashion. Of those remaining, almost 21 percent (or 5 percent of the total cohort) were actively working towards high school completion. Only 7 percent of the total cohort had dropped out of school and were not working towards completing high school.
Those who had failed to make this critical transition to the status of high school completers had clear impediments to their successful development to other stages of adulthood. Of those eighth graders who were still dropouts in 1994, only 7 percent were enrolled in postsecondary education and slightly more than one-quarter were either unemployed or not in the labor force.
Non-completers were also those most likely to make early transitions into adult roles for which they may not have been fully prepared. Over half of the dropouts not pursuing any further education in 1994 had at least one child (as either a cause or consequence of their dropping out of school), 41 percent of those dropouts re-enrolled in a high school program had children, and most of both groups of dropouts had children before the summer of their senior year in high school. In contrast, only about 9 percent of those who had graduated from high school had children and those who did have children tended to have them after scheduled graduation from high school.
These results seem to confirm what many people have argued for some time those who do not complete high school face difficulties in making successful steps in other transitions to adult life./42 While the economy may have changed dramatically in the last ten years since the last high school cohort was examined (the High School and Beyond study of the sophomore class of 1982), any such changes have not eliminated the necessity of making this critical passage to adult life.