High school dropouts cost us all

It will take a significant change in policy for this nation to overcome its appalling school dropout problem, but maybe the place to start is coming up with a good slogan.

Something along the lines of "Buckle Up!" or "Don't Drink and Drive." What's needed is a pitch that fundamentally changes our perception of dropping out, that highlights what it really is: a drain on society.

We tend to regard dropping out as a personal failing -- or as an individual tragedy, depending on your point of view. The victim is often a low-income kid stuck in a bad school with parents not engaged enough to do anything about it.

We can argue about who's to blame for high dropout rates. But it might be more productive to focus on who loses out. The answer is the entire community where dropouts live.

The dismal earning prospects a high school dropout faces are well known. In 2005, dropouts could expect to earn about $17,300, compared to $26,900 for those with only a high school diploma and $52,600 for those with a four-year college degree. The less money people make because they dropped out, the less they spend at local businesses. The less they contribute to productivity. And the less they pay in sales taxes and property taxes, not to mention income taxes. By failing to live up to their potential, dropouts cost their communities.

But what if a city knew how many fewer cars were bought in a year, how much was never added to the tax base, how many fewer homes were bought and sold because of its dropout rate? Would it be more likely to do something about its education system? A nonprofit group called the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) has tallied up such costs for the 50 largest metropolitan areas.

It found that in those areas combined, some 600,000 students failed to graduate in 2008. AEE estimates that if only half of those dropouts had gone on to earn their diplomas, they would have earned an estimated $4 billion more in wages in a typical year. Had they done so, their state and local tax coffers could have seen an additional $536 million in revenue. A surprising number would have probably continued on toward higher educational attainment, which would have boosted their earning potential even more.

How's that for a stimulus? In fact, the AEE has made that point with a pitch that just might be the one I'm looking for: "The best economic stimulus is a high school diploma." That may seem like a little overstatement, given that in the deep recession we're currently in, a lot of educated people can't seem to find work. The point is that better educated employees make and spend more money, which grows the economy. At least, that's what happens in normal economic times.

By 2011 all states will be required to calculate and report their dropout statistics in comparable ways. That will make the kind of analysis AEE has done even more telling and valuable.

Some will protest that this emphasis on "cost" is another way of demonizing troubled students. But a nurturing, understanding approach to the problem isn't likely to cut much ice in American politics. This is a nation that continues to fund school districts largely by local property taxes, despite the well-known fact that this perpetuates inequalities between suburban and urban districts.

But costs and tax losses -- now those are motivators the American public understands.

For years, one of the best marketing campaigns around education prompted us to accept that "a mind is a terrible thing to waste." What if people could be convinced that wasting that mind was also wasting their money?

Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at