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Halving High School Dropout Rate Could Save U.S. $45 Billion Annually, Study Shows

Lawmakers mulling a solution to the looming Medicare and Social Security shortfalls brought on by mass baby boomer retirements need to look no further than stemming the tide of high school dropouts, according to a study released Wednesday titled, “The Costs and Benefits of an Excellent Education for America’s Children.”

The study by Columbia Teachers College finds that the economy would save $45 billion annually by reducing the national dropout rate by 50 percent. The savings would come from reduced costs in the welfare and criminal justice systems. Currently, the overall U.S. dropout rate hovers around 30 percent, but the problem is particularly severe for Blacks and Hispanics, as about half of those students drop out each year. The study was conducted by Dr. Henry Levin of Teachers College, Dr. Peter A. Muennig of Columbia, Dr. Clive R. Belfield of Queens College and Dr. Cecilia E. Rouse of Princeton University.

Belfield says that though some view the pervasive dropout problem among some minorities as not worth reversing, many fail to understand its ripple effects.

“A recent study for California’s prison system estimated that if you’re a minority male [and] you were a high school dropout, your chances of spending some time in the prison system before you were 35 were 100 percent,” Belfield says. “You had virtually no chance, if you’re a minority dropout, of avoiding some interaction with the criminal justice system.”

For minorities who graduate high school, the likelihood of being involved in the criminal justice system drops dramatically, he says.

“Doesn’t it make sense from society’s perspective to give everybody a meaningful chance to graduate from high school?” he asks. “Otherwise, we’re just waiting for them to have some interaction with the criminal justice system.”

The study determines that the lifetime cost-savings to the criminal justice system per high school graduate is $26,600. Although high school dropouts constitute less than 20 percent of the overall population, “dropouts make up over 50 percent of the state prison inmate population,” the study’s authors write, and “disadvantaged groups — particularly Black males — are disproportionately represented in the prison system”

The study highlights five strategies to boost high school graduation rates. Of these interventions, two take place in preschool, one in elementary school, one in high school and one throughout the K-12 years. Among successful school strategies, the study cities small-size schools, personalization, high academic expectations, strong counseling, parental engagement, extended time in school and competent and appropriate personnel — generally speaking.

“An excellent education for all of America’s children has benefits not only for the children themselves but also for the taxpayer and society,” the study says. “Poor education leads to large public and social costs in the form of lower income and economic growth, reduced tax revenues and higher costs of such public services as health care, criminal justice and public assistance. Therefore, we can view efforts to improve educational outcomes for at-risk populations as a public investment that yields benefits in excess of investment costs.”

The study can be viewed online at, the Web site of The Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education.

–David Pluviose

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