The assumption in industrialized countries is that if you don’t go to college your future is likely pretty bleak. As the title of a 1998 report read, "To the Educated, the Spoils." And to the uneducated, the spoiled.
And if you didn’t even graduate high school. Ooh, let the hand-wringing begin. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the average income for a dropout (in 2009) was $19,540 compared to $27,380 for a graduate and $46,930 for someone with a bachelor’s degree. High school dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed, to be let go first when times get tough, and to end up in prison (82 percent of inmates don’t have a diploma).
First off, the picture isn’t quite as dire as dropout rates from schools suggest. Yes, about a quarter of U.S. high school freshmen don’t graduate four years later, as expected. But by age 24, according to federal figures, only about one in 10 don’t have a diploma or its legal equivalent. Right now, 78.2 percent of high school freshmen graduate on schedule, the best that that stat has been in 30 years. Historically, we’re doing pretty good:
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1910, only 13.5% of the adult population had completed secondary school. By mid-century, one-third (34.3%) of the population had completed 12 years of school. And by century’s end, 84.1% of the adult population held a high school diploma.
None of which is meant to put a gloss on a sorry outcome. These figures are a national average, and based on ethnicity, geography, and gender, your results may vary. Plus, even if you accept these numbers, and there are a lot of ways to derive dropout figures and many methods don’t provide such a happy picture, the life of a dropout as we’ve seen is likely to be grim.
A new paper in The Social Science Journal takes a deeper look at what happens to dropouts career-wise, and offers some hope. “One fact that cannot be overlooked is that not every high school dropout ends up in a dead-end job,” writes author Kyung-Nyun Kim of the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training. Yes, seven out of 10 do—but three out of 10 find a way up, albeit later in life.
(Given Kim’s home institution, studying dropouts must verge on the exotic. South Korea’s graduation rate after four years of high school is 93 percent, the highest in the world. "No one just drops out of school," a Korean principal once told a USA Today reporter. "A student may transfer to another school, but no one just drops out. ... To drop out of school is a major disaster, a catastrophe. It wouldn't happen unless it was unavoidable.")
After looking at data from the National Longitudinal Study Youth 97 survey (a longitudinal study of almost 9,000 Americans who were age 12 to 16 on December 31, 1996) Kim has found one key takeaway—having a computer in their home during their high school years gives a big boost to the likelihood that they’ll be among the fortunate 30 percent.
Sorting dropout job trajectories into three categories—dead-end (69 percent of drop-outs), stepping stone (23 percent), and advancing (eight percent)—Kim says the presence of a computer in a dropout’s home makes them 61 percent more likely to achieve a stepping-stone career and 126 percent more likely to eventually reach an advancing career. Yes, even for the most unprepared, the digital divide matters:
The benefit of having a computer at home prepares workers for the modern labor market, and the lack of computer skills may drive dropouts to more rudimentary jobs that do not offer career advancement.
Kim also revealed some interesting demographic data. Female dropouts are more likely than men to end up in the top trajectory, advancing career. Kim and others who have studied gender wage gaps speculate that among low skilled jobs, the female-centric service sector offers more long-term opportunity than the male-dominated industrial and manufacturing sector.
Now for the bad news. Despite institutional strides, black dropouts are more likely than white dropouts to end up in dead-end jobs. In a different paper in the journal Education and Urban Society, Kim made this disparity explicit:
Black workers initially hold lower occupational standing compared with White workers, even after controlling for background variables. Disadvantages in Black workers are not compensated by work experience or credentials. Initial difference at entry-level work has persistent effects on the racial occupational gap. This implies that individual effort cannot solve a structural hole in the minority treatment of the labor market, and policy intervention is needed to narrow the racial disparities.
As far as those policies go, Kim suggests that on the whole, dropouts are not seeking college education. Therefore, programs that provide genuine occupational skills, like vocational certificates, are more valuable than programs that offer diploma simulacra, like the General Educational Development test, or GED.