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Editorial: A little drop in dropouts

For those searching for any upbeat economic news amid grim reports about rising unemployment and declining profits, the latest statewide high-school dropout figures might offer a sliver of relief.
The emphasis, however, is on sliver. Overall, the N.C. dropout rate for grades 9-12 declined 4.7 percent for the 2007/2008 school year, compared to a year earlier, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. In raw numbers, that amounts to 22,434 dropouts, or a statewide rate of 4.97 percent, down from 5.27 percent the previous year. For Rowan-Salisbury schools, the numbers were essentially flat. The state lists 380 RSS dropouts in grades 9-12 for the 2007/2008 term. That’s the same number recorded for the previous year, but because of enrollment changes, the dropout rate shows an uptick percentage-wise, from 5.47 in 2006/2007 to 5.54 percent last year. (The Kannapolis city schools’ rate edged up from 6.77 percent to 7.06 percent, while Cabarrus dipped from 4.77 to 4.76.)
Ordinarily you might not think of dropout rates as an economic indicator. But as the nation’s overall dropout rates (which many studies put at 30 percent or higher for individual freshmen classes tracked over four years) have gotten increased attention, recent studies have put dollar figures on just how much dropouts cost in lost wages. (It’s no coincidence that Rowan County’s dropout rate and average income both tend to lag state averages.)
For instance, dropouts have lifetime earnings at least $260,000 lower than high school graduates, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Multiplied by thousands of graduates across the state and nation, the costs are staggering. The number of non-graduates for the class of ’08 will cost the state about $10.7 billion in lost earnings. Nationwide, if all those students had stayed in school, the economy would have benefited from an additional $319 billion in income over their lifetimes ó not to mention how they might contribute in non-monetary ways.
Along with an improvement in the overall dropout rate, state officials are encouraged that the age at which students drop out is rising, and a greater proportion (16.4 percent) of those listed as dropouts say they left school to participate in community college programs.
While it’s encouraging that more high-school dropouts are continuing their education via other institutions, the key to slicing the rate is keeping students in school ó which is where RSS is targeting additional resources, including new grant funds, as it attempts to identify potential dropouts as early as possible. These latest gains are modest and, like the results of the school system report cards released this week, can vary widely from school to school, as well as school system to school system. The real cause for celebration will come when the dropout rate shows a longterm, significant decline, and that’s proving an elusive goal. Still, any improvement is a positive sign for the state’s future workforce and its economy.

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