Skip to contentNational Women's Law Center

High School Dropouts: A Problem for Girls and Boys

October 29, 2007

For Immediate Release: Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Contact: Ranit Schmelzer, 202-588-5180

HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUTS:A PROBLEM FOR GIRLS AND BOYS

New Report Finds Economic Costs for Female Dropouts Outweigh Those for Males

( Washington, D.C.) An alarmingly high number of girls are dropping out of high school and these female dropouts are at particular economic risk compared to their male counterparts, according to a report by the National Women's Law Center.

Released today, When Girls Don't Graduate, We All Fail: A Call to Improve High School Graduation Rates for Girls,finds that American girls are dropping out of high school at nearly the same rate as boys, and at even greater economic cost. Female dropouts earn significantly lower wages than male dropouts, are at greater risk of unemployment, and are more likely to rely on public support programs.

"The high school dropout crisis has received significant recent attention but almost exclusively as a problem for boys. It is generally overlooked that girls are also failing to graduate at alarmingly high rates," said Marcia D. Greenberger, Co-President of the National Women's Law Center. "The dropout rate for girls results in severe economic consequences for them, their families and society as a whole."

When Girls Don't Graduate finds that close to half of the estimated dropouts from the Class of 2007 were female students, or over 520,000 of the overall 1.2 million high school dropouts. Overall, an estimated one in four female students will not graduate with a regular high school diploma in the standard, four-year time period.

The rates are even worse for girls of color. Nationwide, 37 percent of Hispanic, 40 percent of Black, and 50 percent of American Indian or Alaskan Native female students respectively failed to graduate in four years in 2004. While girls in each racial and ethnic group fare better than their male peers of the same race or ethnicity, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native female students graduate at significantly lower rates than White and Asian-American males.

While all high school dropouts pay significant costs for their lack of education, the report finds that the economic costs are particularly steep for women, who face especially poor employment prospects, low earnings potential, poor health status, and the need to rely on public support programs. According to When Girls Don't Graduate:

  • Males at every level of education make more than females with similar education backgrounds, but the wage gap between men and women is highest among high school dropouts.
  • Female high school dropouts earn only 63 percent of male earnings - or about $9,100 less annually - than male high school dropouts. Put another way, female high school dropouts earn 63 cents for every $1 earned by male high school dropouts.
  • In 2006, adult women without a high school diploma earned on average only a little more than $15,500 for the year - over $6,000 less annually than women with a high school diploma and $9,100 on average less annually than male dropouts.
  • Only after the average woman has some college education does she earn more than the average male high school dropout ($26,513 vs. $24,698).

These low wages leave female dropouts, and their families, particularly economically vulnerable. Judged against the federal poverty line (FPL), women without high school diplomas earn an average salary about seven percent below the FPL for a family of three ($15,520 vs. $16,600), while women with high school diplomas earn an average salary about 32 percent above the FPL ($21,936 vs. $16,600). Experts suggest that families need incomes of approximately two times the federal poverty measure to meet their basic needs.

When Girls Don't Graduate finds that higher unemployment and lowered earnings are not the only negative outcomes for female high school dropouts. Female dropouts struggle with worse health conditions and less access to heath coverage to address their needs. They are also forced to depend more heavily on public support programs. Female dropouts, for example, are more likely to rely on Medicaid assistance. More than 50 percent of Black women, approximately 35 percent of Hispanic women, and almost 30 percent of White women dropouts are forced to rely on Medicaid. This compares with slightly more than 30 percent of Black men, 20 percent of Hispanic men, and 15 percent of White male dropouts.

The report also looks at some of the barriers leading to, and risk factors for, dropping out that are of particular importance for girls. As is also true for boys, girls drop out for myriad reasons, including their attitudes toward and experiences at school, the characteristics of those schools, and the family support the girls receive. One significant risk factor for girls is pregnancy and parenting responsibilities. In response to a survey sponsored by the Gates Foundation, for example, one-third of female dropouts reported that becoming a parent played a major role in their decision to leave school. Other studies have found that low attendance rates, the impact of sexual harassment and academic concerns - although relevant for both boys and girls - may be more significant factors for some groups of girls than for boys when deciding whether to drop out.

These studies reveal the pressing need for further gender-based research in this area to ensure that policy makers and educators both fully understand gender-based differences in the reasons students drop out and can design targeted strategies that will be most efficacious in keeping girls and boys, of all races and ethnicities, in school. Targeting strategies in this way can help a school significantly improve its dropout rate.

For example, the Gates Foundation survey suggests that efforts to provide enhanced support for pregnant and parenting students is especially important; this is the group of students that the survey found was "most likely to say they would have worked harder if their schools had demanded more of them and provided the necessary support." When Girls Don't Graduate recommends that schools that consider gender-based differentials in their students' needs or reactions to school-based stressors in order to more effectively target interventions for their student bodies as a whole.

The report also outlines other specific proposals to help reduce girls' dropout rates, many of which are likely to help boys as well. The recommendations include: improving data collection; increasing school accountability for dropouts; providing additional support for pregnant and parenting students; ensuring girls have equal access to Career and Technical Education training for high-skill, high-wage jobs and after-school programs; protecting students from sexual harassment and bullying; and ensuring that students know how to report sex discrimination.

"Far too many boys and girls will fail to make it to graduation day on time, if at all," said Jocelyn Samuels, NWLC Vice President for Education and Employment. "This is more than a boys' problem - or a girls' problem. It is a societal problem. We owe it to all our students to address this serious issue promptly."

The full report is available at /sites/default/files/pdfs/DropoutReport.pdf.