The Dropout Epidemic: A Crisis of Human Capital

As this issue of BLACK ENTERPRISE  arrives in homes and offices and hits newsstands across the nation, many of you are preparing to celebrate a major rite of passage for many of the loved ones in your life: high school graduation.

Finishing high school remains the first and most important step to productive adulthood, a prerequisite to higher education, career and business success, and seminal to the wealth building capacity of the vast majority of Americans. Earning a high school diploma remains the No.1 early predictor of who is likely to make it in society, how far they are able to go and what they are able to earn and achieve.

That’s why we must all be moved to action by statistics that show that nearly one-third of all U.S. high school students fail to graduate. Among blacks and Latinos, it is even worse: for every student who dons a cap and gown and marches across the stage in auditoriums and halls across the country, there is a student who will not finish high school. This is not a typo: The drop-out rate among black and Latino high school students is nearly 50%. In some major urban areas, such as Cleveland and Indianapolis, more than 60% of students fail to graduate from high school each year.

According to America’s Promise Alliance (www.AmericasPromise.org), an organization pledging support to young Americans founded by Retired Gen. Colin Powell and his wife Alma Powell, about 1.2 million students—7,000 kids every day—drop out of high school each year. This is not just a problem for students and their families. It’s also my problem—and yours. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education (www.all4ed.org), high school dropouts from the class of 2006–07 will cost the U.S. an estimated $329 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over their lifetimes.

Those who drop out are more likely to be incarcerated, rely on public programs and social services, and go without health insurance than those who graduate from high school. And we all pay the price for these outcomes, both financially and in terms of our quality of life.

The Obama administration has increased investment in early childhood education and is pushing for higher standards for our schools and more accountability from teachers, parents, and, perhaps most importantly, the students themselves. We must press the White House, as well as Congress and state and local governments to do even more. But make no mistake: this is a crisis that has to be confronted community by community, school by school, family by family, and even student by student.

Each of us must take personal responsibility for intervening in the life of at least one student each year (and not necessarily a child of our own) to give him or her the support and encouragement needed to stay in school—or return to school—and earn their high school diploma. If you’re looking for a place to start, the America’s Promise Alliance Website’s Dropout Prevention Campaign page provides excellent tools and best practices for communities that want to help keep their kids in school and better prepare them for life after they get their diploma. We need to act as if our future depends on their graduating from high school, because it does.

Every day we learn of a new crisis brewing—housing, economic, healthcare, environmental, etc.—but the epidemic of high school dropouts has long proceeded the current recession, and it serves only to exacerbate the other problems plaguing our economy. I agree with National Urban League President and CEO and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial that this crisis—what I call a crisis of human capital—may ultimately be the biggest threat to the economic future of our nation, and of African Americans in particular. We simply can no longer afford to let half of our young people fail.