05/30/2014 11:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014

High School Dropout Rate: Causes and Costs

Last month I dug into the current state of high school dropouts and where American students today stand in historic statistics. In my research, I discovered that while dropout percentages are much lower today than they were a few decades ago, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Today I want to look at the underlying causes of the dropout mentality and how every student who does not earn a high school diploma hurts society as a whole. My hope is that in discovering shared traits among dropouts, we can achieve higher high school graduation rates as a nation.

Why are students dropping out?

One unchanging factor when it comes to the dropout rate is socioeconomic background. Since the National Center for Education Statistics first started tracking different groups of high school students in the late 1960s, the socioeconomic status of each pupil has impacted the graduation rate. Students from low-income families are 2.4 times more likely to drop out than middle-income kids, and over 10 times more likely than high-income peers to drop out.

Household income is the not the only disadvantage many dropouts have, though. Students with learning or physical disabilities drop out at a rate of 36 percent. Some behaviors that are often characteristic in dropouts include being retained from advancing a grade level with peers, relocating during the high school years and the general feeling of being left out or alienated by peers or adults at the school. Overall, a student who does not fit the traditional classroom mold, or who falls behind for some reason, is more likely to lose motivation when it comes to high school and decide to give up altogether.

How valuable is a high school diploma?

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that dropouts bring in just $20,241 annually, which is $10,000 less than high school graduates and over $36,000 less than a person holding a bachelor's degree. The poverty rate for dropouts is over twice as high as college grads, and the unemployment rate for dropouts is generally 4 percentage points higher than the national average. In the end, the lifetime earnings of high school dropouts are $260,000 less than peers who earn a diploma.

Why should I care?

The financial ramifications of dropping out of high school hurt more than the individual. It's estimated that half of all Americans on public assistance are dropouts. If all of the dropouts from the class of 2011 had earned diplomas, the nation would benefit from an estimated $154 billion in income over their working lifetimes. Potentially feeding that number is the fact that young women who give up on high school are nine times more likely to be, or become, young single mothers. A study out of Northeastern University found that high school dropouts cost taxpayers $292,000 over the course of their lives.

It's not just about the money, though. Over 80 percent of the incarcerated population is high school dropouts -- making this an issue that truly impacts every member of the community. Numbers are higher for dropouts of color; 22 percent of people jailed in the U.S. are black males who are high school dropouts. As a society, we are not just paying into public assistance programs for dropouts, but we are paying to protect ourselves against them through incarceration.

I wonder what these numbers would look like if we took the nearly $300,000 that taxpayers put in over the course of a dropout's lifetime and deposited it into their K-12 learning upfront. If we invested that money, or even half of it, into efforts to enhance the learning experience and programs to prevent dropping out, what would that do to dropout, poverty and incarceration rates? Right now the process seems to be reactionary. What would it look like if more preventative actions were put in place?

What are some underlying causes of the high school dropout rate not mentioned here?