The Economic Case for Dropout Fight

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Wise: “The best economic stimulus is a high school diploma.”

In a time of economic unease, dropout-prevention leaders are stepping up the message that the best way to stimulate the economy is to get more students to graduate from high school and go on to college.

That was the central message of last month’s GradNation 2009 Action Forum, hosted by America’s Promise Alliance. “The best economic stimulus is a high school diploma,” Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, told the forum attendees in Washington.

The former West Virginia governor and congressman presented a new report to help youth workers make the case for how curbing the dropout rate is an economic investment, not just a moral imperative – the key strategy for the campaign since its launch in April 2008. (See “Dropout Campaign Launched” at

The report, The Economic Benefits of Reducing High School Dropout Rates in the America’s Promise Alliance’s Twelve Featured Communities, estimates how many more millions of dollars in wages youth in 12 cities would earn collectively, and how many more hundreds of homes they’d be better positioned to buy, if those cities had cut their dropout rates for the class of 2009 in half.

“We now have the data for you to make the argument in your cities about why cutting the dropout rate in half is vital as an economic means,” Wise said. “Failure to do this means we’re going to be denied these kinds of gains.”

The data are intended to help on-the-ground youth workers and advocates like Shawna Davie, a newly hired dropout-prevention coordinator for the United Way of the Capital Area in Jackson, Miss., one of the 12 cities featured in the report. The report says that if half the city’s 3,017 dropouts from the class of 2009 had graduated, and if “many” of them had continued their education, they would have collectively earned an average of $16 million per year more compared with their probable earnings as dropouts.

“In working with the business community, [the report] will give us an opportunity and a new piece of information to show how we can improve the Mississippi workforce by improving the graduation rate,” Davie said after the presentation.

Carmita Vaughan, chief strategy officer for America’s Promise, said the report is also intended to generate public and political will to reduce dropout rates and to show that there are returns on investments in fighting the problem.

Strategies for Youth Work

At the forum’s workshops, the focus was on practices in youth programs that will help get more students to earn high school diplomas.

Shirley Sagawa, visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress, talked about how fun and engaging service projects can be used to improve youths’ attendance and behavior in school – two critical factors for high school graduation. She urged youth workers to be more deliberate about how they engage youths in service projects instead of just throwing together projects in order to check off a box that shows they completed a particular program’s service requirement.

Pamela A. Mullender, CEO of the Stamford, Conn.-based ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) Mentor Program, spoke about how the program, operating with private money and volunteer mentors from construction-related fields, has steered most of its youth participants to college programs in architecture, construction and engineering. The program serves 15,000 youths and has set a goal of bringing on 100,000 youths annually by 2012. It has also awarded more than $8 million in scholarships.

With all the data being bandied about, Johnnetta Cole, president emerita of Spelman College in Atlanta and of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., reminded the conferees that their work is “not about a number. It’s about a girl. It’s about a boy. It’s about all of us.”

That point was made poignantly by Wise, who began his presentation with a slide show that projected the school pictures of 10 high school freshmen onto two big screens in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott.

As he rattled off statistics about how, in many cities, half of the high school students drop out, the pictures faded away, until only five remained. “We have the opportunity,” he said, “to make this picture [with all 10 students] look the same four years later.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers College & Careers under a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is one of the funders of the America’s Promise dropout prevention campaign.