Research highlights long-term economic impacts of addressing barriers to high school graduation

Addressing the systemic inequities that lead to higher rates of chronic absenteeism and disciplinary infractions and lower high school graduation rates among the most impacted student groups would benefit the children themselves, as well as society as a whole, according to a recent brief from the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools.

“Across these three domains, there are significant inequities,” researchers wrote. “But there are also significant economic consequences: Too many resources are wasted on addressing consequences and too few resources are allocated to prevent these inequities in the first place.”

Across California, 13 percent of students withdraw from high school, but the rate is far higher for African American and Hispanic students at 20 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Disadvantaged groups including foster and homeless youth, disabled students and English learners face even higher rates — between 25 and 36 percent. Those who drop out of high school will not have the opportunity to go to college and will likely face additional obstacles in becoming economically independent and secure.

Low attendance rates, which have spiked since the start of the pandemic, also have long-term consequences. When students are chronically absent, they often fail to acquire the most fundamental skills for success in adulthood, according to the report. In 2019, one in 10 California students was absent for more than 10 percent of the school year. In 2022, the rate was almost one in three. Again, African American and Hispanic students are chronically absent more often (43 percent and 36 percent respectively); and rates for disadvantaged groups are similar, falling between 34–45 percent.

Additionally, disciplinary action including suspensions, expulsions and restraints can dramatically impact student outcomes, and much like chronic absenteeism and dropout rates, disciplinary sanctions are not evenly spread across students.

“Each year, 233,800 students (4 percent) are suspended and 3,300 are expelled,” the brief noted. “Suspensions are strikingly higher for: African American students — the rate is almost four times that of any other racial group; males — the rate is double that of females; and for disadvantaged students — with one-quarter of foster youth and one in 12 youth experiencing homelessness suspended each year. Many of these students will struggle to complete school and may become tracked into the state’s institutional or carceral systems.”

Far-reaching impacts

Using an economic model, researchers calculated the “resource benefits” of graduating high school, of not being chronically absent, and of not being suspended or expelled to the student, the school system and the state of California.

Using 2023 dollars, authors of the brief found that, from a social perspective, graduating high school rather than withdrawing yields the benefit of $480,000 per high school graduate over a lifetime. The economic burden related to students withdrawing from high school without graduating is high, reflecting lost earnings — which has implications for the individual and society — as well as worse health outcomes and greater spending on crime. And from a taxpayer perspective, new high school graduates also result in higher revenues and lower government spending to the tune of $148,000 over a lifetime. Graduating high school generates extra earnings of $358,000 over the life course of an individual. Graduates also tend to have better health and are less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system.

While researchers note that the causes of high school noncompletion are many and complex, the economic case for helping students reach graduation is clear. They posit that, if this rate could be increased statewide by 3 percentage points to match the national average, then California would have 20,000 additional graduates each year — an economic value of $9.57 billion added to the resources of California and $2.95 billion added to tax revenues. And if policies were targeted to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, such efforts would further reduce inequities among the state’s workforce.

However, reforms aimed at improving graduation rates must reflect a Multi-tiered System of Supports, researchers concluded.

“The three challenges analyzed here are not separable: Schools with the most discipline and absenteeism problems tend to have the highest withdrawal rates. High school students who are absent and violate school rules are more likely to have poor achievement and to withdraw from school,” according to the brief. “Finally, equity and efficiency are interlinked: Schools with systemic discipline and absenteeism — leading in turn to high school failure — also tend to disproportionately serve disadvantaged and minority student groups. Overall, multi-tiered reforms — to boost high school completion and reduce absenteeism and disciplinary problems — can be both efficient and equitable.”