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The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts

Bridgeland, John, John J. DiIulio, Jr. and Karen Burke Morison. (March 2006) "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts," A Report by Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Associates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.



Approximately one third of all high school students do not graduate in the United States today. These students are disproportionately minorities. "In 2003, 3.5 million youth ages 16-25 did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school." (1) Moreover, the public and even teachers themselves are quite oblivious to this epidemic which has only gotten worse since heightened reforms appeared over the past few decades. Former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education has observed that:

Many schools in America can't tell us on any given day who's in school and who's not, nor in any given year how many students have successfully made it through their four years of schooling to graduate and how many have dropped out. (1)

Because there has been little research done from the perspective of the dropouts themselves, this report attempts to fill in the gap by interviewing the dropouts themselves and create a broader public awareness of this tragic problem.



The researchers behind this report conducted a series of focus groups and a survey of young people aged 16-25 who claimed to be high school dropouts from 25 various locations (urban, suburban and rural all with high drop-out rates) across the United States.



The data of this report are  broken down into two sections with key findings listed below each:

I. Why Students Drop Out

  1. Nearly half said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting.
  2. Nearly 7 in 10 said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard, 80 percent did one hour or less of homework each day, two-thirds would have worked harded if more was demanded of them and 70 percent were confident they could have graduated if they had tried.
  3. Many students gave personal reasons for leaving school. A third said they had to get a job and make money; 26 percent said they became a parent; and 22 percent said they had to care for a family member.
  4. Some leave because of academic challenges: 35 percent said that "failing in schoo" was a major factor in dropping out; 45 percent said they started high school poorly prepared by their earlier schooling; 32 percent were required to repeat a grade before dropping out and 29 percent had significant doubts whether they could have met their high school's graduation requirements even if they tried hard.
  5. For most students, dropping out is not a sudden act but a gradual process: 59 to 65 percent missed class often the last year before dropping out; 38 percent believed they had "too much freedom" and not enough rules.
  6. For students who dropped out, proactive parental involvement in their education was low: 59 percent of parents/guardians were involved in their child's schooling with only 21 percent very involved; 68 percent said their parents became more involved only when they realized their child was at risk of dropping out.
  7. In hindsight, most young people who dropped out of school felt great remorse and showed a strong desire to re-enter with students their own age: 81 percent of adult drop-outs said that graduating from high school was important to success in life; 74 percent said that if they were able to relive the experience, they would have stayed in school; 47 percent said that not having a diploma makes it hard to get a good job.

II. What Might Help Students Stay in School

While most students blame themselves for dropping out of school, there are things they say that schools can do to help them finish:

  1. Improve teaching and curricula to make school more relevant and engaging and enhance the connection between school and work (i.e. technical/vocational experiential-learning)
  2. Improve instruction, and access to supports, for struggling students.
  3. Build a school climate that fosters academics.
  4. Ensure that students have a strong relationship with at least one adult in the school.
  5. Improve the communication between parents and school.



In response to the above data, the report authors compiled a list of suggestions for addressing the dropout problems in our schools.

For Schools and Communities:

  1. Develop different school options to fit unique student needs.
  2. Create parent engagement strategies and individualized graduation plans.
  3. Generate early warning systems to identify students at risk of dropping out.
  4. Establish addition supports and adult adovcates.

For States:

  1. Perform a re-examination of the compulsory school age requirements and consider going from 16 or 17 to 18.
  2. Collect more accurate data from states and school districts.

For the Nation:

  1. Collect more accurate national data from federal departments and agencies.
  2. Offer better incentives under the No Child Left Behind act to keep children in schools.
  3. Perform more research on what works and disseminate best practices.

Next steps: Create a national conversation on this topic through congressional hearings, White House conferences, state and local officials summits and public forums in schools and communities where the data is dicussed alongside possible soluations and, most importantly, the voices of the students are heard.



  1. Were you aware of the direness of the school dropout problem in the US?
  2. What do you think this report left out, if anything? How would you have done it differently?
  3. What has your experience with school dropouts been like, if any?
  4. Do you agree with the recommendations of the report? What would you add or take out?



  1. This is clearly a national emergency as the education of our youth is essential to create healthy and stable citizens and future leaders.
  2. Comprehensive approaches to addressing this problem need to be considered.