Nevertheless, a number of negative outcomes associated with dropping out are consistently reported in this body of research. The fact that these findings are corroborated by multiple independent studies permits a certain degree of confidence in the conclusions that can be drawn, even though they are based primarily on descriptive rather than experimental studies.2 Below we discuss these findings, specifically comparing social and economic outcomes for graduates, dropouts, and individuals who receive a General Educational Development (GED) credential. This review is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of the literature but simply an overview designed to give the reader a general sense of the differences in outcomes for individuals with and without high school diplomas.


Earning a high school diploma is one of the most important factors associated with social and economic success in America. A high school diploma signifies that the bearer has both the cognitive and noncognitive attributes important for success in adulthood. It is usually a minimum requirement for engaging in further training and serves as the gatekeeper for higher education and higher paying jobs. Research shows that high school graduates fare better than dropouts in many aspects of life (Belfield and Levin, 2007). Dropouts are more likely to become teenage parents and have nonmarital births (Manlove, 1998; McLanahan, 2009). They are less likely to vote or engage in civic activities (Bartels, 2008; Uslaner and Brown, 2005). They have poorer prospects for intergenerational mobility (McLanahan, 2009).

Graduates and dropouts differ markedly in their labor market outcomes, although, as noted above, it cannot always be inferred that these differences are caused by the education credential. Graduates are more likely to be employed than dropouts, and their wages are higher. Government data show that 58.9 percent of students who dropped out of school in the 2006-07 school year were not working (unemployed or not in the labor force) the following October ( Among all 16-to 24-year-olds in October 2007, the unemployment rate for dropouts was 17.3

lar credential. Some examples include the following. Oreopoulos (2007) and Oreopoulous and Salvanes (2009) studied the impact of credentials on a variety of types of outcomes. Tyler, Murnane, and Willett (2000) and Tyler (2003) studied labor market outcomes. Lochner and Moretti (2004) and Moretti (2007) studied involvement in criminal activities. Lleras-Muney (2005) and Cutler and Lleras-Muney (2006) studied health outcomes. A second category consists of studies that permit causal inferences about the effects of particular programs designed to achieve objectives, such as to increase the high school graduation rate. Examples are U.S. Department of Education (2008a, 2008b) and Levin and Belfield (2007).


For further discussion about making causal inferences, see National Research Council (2002, pp. 110-117).

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