The U.S. Dropout Rate is Falling Fast, But Hold the Champagne

On the heels of the good news about the U.S. graduation rate comes word from the U.S. Census Bureau that the high school dropout rate has fallen to a record low. In 2013, just 7 percent of 18-24 year olds dropped out of school, down considerably from 12 percent in 2000.  Although the dropout rate remains the highest for Hispanic students, the decline in that demographic was the most startling. In 2000, 32 percent of Hispanic students left school. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 14 percent. The decline in the dropout rate for African Americans has also been significant. The dropout rate for Non-Hispanic Whites has not been as dramatic.

It wasn’t that long ago that the words ‘dropout’ and ‘crisis’ seemed permanently intertwined, so this trend is encouraging news. And as the Pew Research Center pointed out in its analysis of the data, “the decline in the size of the Hispanic dropout population has been particularly noteworthy because it’s happened at the same time that the Hispanic youth population is growing.” Dropouts have decreased even as the population has almost doubled from 2000-2013. Pew also speculated that Hispanic students and their families recognize that staying in school and perhaps moving onto college is critical, especially in this very tight job market.

Dr. Luis Ponjuan, an associate professor of educational administration and policy at  Texas A&M University, agrees but says other factors also help explain the steep decline in dropouts. Ponjuan has written extensively on the challenges facing Latino youth in secondary and higher education.

“Schools are making a better effort to engage with parents in helping them understand why students need to complete their education,” Ponjuan explains. “So we’re seeing some benefits of that effort.”

Ponjuan, however, also points to the “greater sense of awareness” across the educational system about Latino students.

“In the past few years, folks have recognized that these students are representing a larger and larger part of our community and that we need to create a better mechanism to address their unique needs.”

Greater language proficiency on the part of the large number of second generation immigrants has also played a role in bringing the dropout rate down, explains Ponjuan. “We have a lot of Latinos that are not immigrants who are part of our system. In the past, because a higher percentage were immigrants, language proficiency was obviously a challenge.”

Ponjuan and other experts stress that improvements in the dropout rate, however encouraging, paint at best an incomplete picture that doesn’t address the complexity of the issues facing  students of color. What kind of education, for example, are they actually receiving? Furthermore, although college enrollment for Hispanics has improved in recent years, they’re still far behind  in earning four-year college degrees.

“There are  still a lot of issues that need to be addressed,” Ponjuan says. “What about the inequality of high school resources that are still an obstacle to so many students? Too many schools  are understaffed and have less resources.  And many of these students have limited access to a curriculum that reflects what is necessary to be successful and go on to earn a degree.”

“We need to be thoughtful about what this means in terms of long-term implications,” he adds. “How do we create an infrastructure for all students at the secondary level that prepares them for post-secondary enrollment and degree completion. Kudos for the improvement in the dropout rate, but that’s the conversation we need to have.”

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