How to Save a High School Dropout

New research shows the key role of relationships in preventing dropout.

While the nation’s high school drop out rate has been steadily declining, young students who face tough times, such as by having a child, becoming homeless or struggling academically, are still at much higher risk of dropping out. Every year, says the America’s Promise Alliance, 485,000 young Americans leave school.

But whether a student drops out – and drops out for good – might depend on this key factor: whether the adults around them can be counted on to help them cope with adversity.

A new study by the Center for Promise, the research institute of the America’s Promise Alliance, finds that having “adverse life experiences” can dramatically up the odds that a student will leave school. Among the events most strongly correlated with dropping out: being expelled or suspended; giving birth or fathering a child; having friends who drop out; suffering from a mental health concern, such as depression or anxiety; falling behind academically; becoming homeless or moving homes.

Nevertheless, students who faced these circumstances were more likely to stay in school if the adults in their lives provided strong social support. This includes not just emotional support, but information, coaching, and what the study calls “instrumental” supports – “tangible resources or services such as providing a bus pass, babysitting an infant so a parent can attend school, introducing a young person to a potential employer or taking a young person to visit a college campus.” According to the report, getting help from an “out of school, non-parent adult” could lower the risk of dropout by as much as 15 percent.

Unfortunately, far too few students at risk of dropping out have access to this level of help. “Those who experience high levels of adversity also experience low levels of support,” said Jonathan Zaff, Executive Director of the Center for Promise and the report’s lead author. “It’s a double whammy.”

According to the Center’s report, based on extensive group interviews in eight cities and a national survey, students in trouble who eventually dropped out were more than twice as likely as those who stayed in school to say they “reached out to ‘no one’ for help. They were also less than half as likely as other students to reach out to a teacher. Moreover, these students were much more likely to believe their teachers didn’t “care” and to report that school officials had urged them to drop out.

A big part of the problem, says Zaff, is lack of trust. “A young person might have what objectively seems like a lot of support around them, but because of their distrust in institutions and in adults who haven’t been there for them, the perception is that those supports don’t exist,” said Zaff.

Students at risk of dropping out need both an “anchor” relationship with a trusted adult, as well as a “web of support” from teachers, family, friends and other providers, Zaff said. To help build these networks, the study suggests increasing the availability of school-based national service programs such as City Year, which could increase the availability of mentors for students at risk of dropping out.

The report also recommends ending so-called “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies that encourage suspension or expulsion. Being suspended or expelled not only doubles the odds that a student won’t graduate on time, it disconnects students from potential supports at school and forces students to fall even further behind academically. According to the Department of Education, 3.5 million students were subject to in-school suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year, and black students were suspended at more than three times the rate of whites.

But the study also cautions that social supports are only a “partial buffer” for young people in particularly difficult circumstances. Among students who experienced five or more “adverse life events” the study found, high school graduation rates dropped below 45 percent, regardless of the amount of social support that a student received.

Zaff said that finding points to the need for a new approach to dropout prevention. While high school completion rates are continuing to climb, he said, “We’ve hit a point where ‘the last mile’ is going to be the hardest.”

While better quality schools and expectations are the right strategy for at-risk students in less difficult situations, it’s not enough for students at the highest risk of dropping out. “The extreme adversity they face tells us that this is not just about education,” said Zaff. “It really expands our notion of what needs to be done.”

Compared to high school graduates, says the Department of Education, every high school dropout potentially costs the national economy as much as $250,000 in both lost tax revenues from potential earnings and from greater reliance on social programs such as welfare and Medicaid. Non-high school graduates earned a median of $25,000 in 2012 – compared to $46,000 for those with a diploma. High school dropouts are also more likely to be unemployed, institutionalized, and suffer worse health than those who completed high school. And among “disconnected” young Americans ages 20 to 24 – who are neither in school nor working – 45 percent are high school dropouts.

“It’s not that young people don’t have strength,” said Zaff. “But if they don’t have the supports, they can’t direct that strength toward an educational outcome.”