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THE BOOK: Introduction - Dropout Nation

“When we looked at the millions of students that our high schools are not preparing for higher education – and we looked at the damaging impact that has on their lives – we came to a painful conclusion: America’s high schools are obsolete.”
– Microsoft Founder and CEO Bill Gates

In March 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued John Bridgeland’s scathing report, “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.” It begins, “There is a high school dropout epidemic in America. Each year, almost one third of all public high school students – and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans – fail to graduate from public high school with their class.”

A few weeks later, Time magazine’s cover story, “Dropout Nation,” brought the crisis to newsstands and supermarket checkout counters, while Oprah Winfrey brought it to millions of television viewers. Then the Economic Policy Institute released its own study suggesting that perhaps the dropout rate was “only” 18 percent. The debate about the numbers was on, and will continue – as if there is some moral advantage to losing only one out of five of our students, rather than one out of three.

Thanks to this surge in media attention, millions of Americans were hearing for the first time that we do indeed have a “dropout epidemic” in this country. And they were learning about the grim real-life consequences, in a new century that demands workplace skills that most often require at least post-high-school study.

America’s three and a half million dropouts ages 16 to 25 are truly have-nots: They do not have a high school diploma, and as a result they have little hope for a decent future. They are far more likely than their peers to be unemployed, live in poverty, experience chronic poor health, depend upon social services, and go to jail. Four out of every 10 young adult dropouts receive some type of government assistance. A dropout is more than eight times as likely to be in jail or prison as a person with at least a high school diploma. Half of all prison inmates are high school dropouts. In fact, on any given day, more young male dropouts are in prison than at a job.

“On my BlackBerry, I get the major crimes that happen in this city as they happen on a real-time basis. . . . When you find the suspect, you can be certain it will almost always be a high school dropout and/or somebody who can’t read or write. There is a connection, make no mistake about it, with the dropout rate.”
- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

The dire consequences for these young people are mirrored in the costs to American society – to you, your children, and the future of our country. Dropouts are costing us billions of dollars in lost wages and increased social supports. Our nation is already operating with a huge deficit. The combined income and tax losses from a single year’s dropouts is about $192 billion – 1.6 percent of the gross domestic product.

The cost of imprisoning or providing government services to dropouts is almost impossible to calculate, but one measure suggests the staggering truth: Each youth who drops out of school and later moves into a life of crime or drugs is costing the nation somewhere between $1.7 to $2.3 million. Just imagine what we could accomplish if this same amount were spent on education instead.

Business leaders, economists, and Chambers of Commerce across the country agree: In a time of intense international competition, America is unable to recruit an adequate workforce while losing one third of its youth. The opportunities that you and your children take for granted are being eroded, day by day, as America is transformed into a society of haves and have-nots. In 20 years, the impact of fiscal failure and social division will be felt keenly by the haves, as America’s global economic leadership dwindles and the nation is unable to pay its huge “bill” generated by the have-nots.

“The bottom line is that this nation cannot rightfully expect to lead the 21st century’s information- and technology-driven global economy when we have upwards of 30 percent of our young people not even graduating from high school.”
- Thomas J. Donahue, president and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The dropout epidemic is creating a divided society whose consequences will be tragic for all Americans, not just the young people themselves. The dropout epidemic is at once a practical disaster for our economy, a human tragedy for the children and families directly concerned, and a justice issue that confronts every citizen.