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Editorial: If you drop out of school, prepare for miserable life

Updated: May 9, 2012 10:05AM

It’s hard to believe that so much in life is decided so early.

But the evidence keeps piling up.

Over a lifetime, high school dropouts in Illinois fare dramatically worse on every imaginable measure than high school graduates, according to a study on Illinois dropouts released Wednesday. They earn far less, go to prison far more often and are far more likely to be poor.

The dropouts pay a price, of course. But so does everyone else.

On average, a high school dropout costs society $71,000 over their lifetime; essentially the amount they pay in taxes is dwarfed by the government benefits they receive, such as welfare and food stamps. Conversely, high school graduates pay $236,000 more in taxes than they take from government.

That’s a $300,000 gulf per dropout, according to an analysis of 2009 and 2010 U.S. Census data by a team of researchers at Northeastern University led by economist Andrew Sum. The study was commissioned by the Chicago-based Alternative Schools Network, a non-profit that supports schools that re-enroll dropouts.

Sum will lay out his findings Wednesday at a conference on re-enrolling dropouts alongside top local leaders, including Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico. Their presence says a lot; they help highlight a problem they know has no easy solutions but is much too large and destructive to ignore.

Wednesday’s group is charged with beginning to draw up a blueprint for re-enrolling dropouts. Presumably, this work also will cover incarcerated dropouts and preventing dropouts in the first place, which must begin well before high school, starting with high-quality early childhood education. Research has consistently shown that intervention to be much more effective than remedial work later on.

Chicago has already taken a lead in this area with its network of alternative schools that offer some 5,000 dropouts a year the chance to earn a diploma. Under a new state charter law, Chicago can open five more of these multi-campus charters over the next few years.

With government facing record deficits, it’s a tough time to ask to potentially spend more. But as the statistics below plainly show, the long-term costs of dropouts are large, real and often irrevocable.

† Less likely to have a job: About 48 percent of 18- to 64-year-old dropouts in Chicago did not work a single week in 2010; for adults with a B.A. or higher, the figure in Chicago and Illinois drops to between 11 and 13 percent.

† Lower earnings: Mean lifetime earnings for Illinois dropouts is $595,000; high school grads, $1,066,000; associate degree grads, $1,509,000.

† Higher prison rates: About 15 percent of young male dropouts in Illinois (18- to 34-year-olds) were in prison in 2010. For black male dropouts, the figure is 29 percent. For black male high school graduates, that rate drops to under 8 percent and just 1 percent for black men with a B.A. or higher.

† Less likely to own a home: About 46 percent of dropouts own a home; for high school graduates, it’s 61 percent; for associate degree holders, it’s 70 percent.

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