How much does the high school dropout rate cost the United States as a whole? In a recent study, “The High Cost of Harsh Discipline and Its Disparate Impact,” researchers Russell W. Rumberger and Daniel J. Losen of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project set out to determine if suspensions lead to higher rates of students dropping out of high school, and if the dropout rate had a significant economic impact. Their conclusions connect suspensions with dropping out, and point to an extreme fiscal impact from the number of students dropping out of high school in the U.S., to the longterm tune of $35 billion.
In the last three decades, attitudes have shifted away from the harsh disciplinary styles in school touted by the Reagan administration toward efforts to use suspension as a last resort and engage in restorative justice practices. As this study points out, however, this shift remains more theoretical than realized on the ground. School staff and leadership “readily admit that the status quo of frequent suspensions and high racial disparities in punishment is unjust, but they also argue that they don’t have the tools, training, or resources to make suggested changes.”
Therefore, “this report carefully and conservatively quantifies the costs of suspension in two highly populated states, Florida and California, and for the nation.” Researchers analyzed suspension and expulsion rates in California and the U.S. from the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS) of 2002. This drew data from 16,252 high school sophomores, enrolled in both public and private schools. Students who participated in the study were then resurveyed in 2004, 2006 and 2012, to follow up once they were in young adulthood. They analyzed suspension and expulsion rates from Florida, using the state’s data system, which focused 181,897 ninth-grade students for the study.
Realizing that suspensions and harsh disciplinary action in schools impacts students of color more than white students, they also analyzed all data based on students’ race and ethnicity.
When examining the suspension data of California, Florida and nationwide, all three datasets show higher suspension rates for students of color. The ELS data for 10th graders nationwide show that 30 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students had faced a suspension in their first semester of 10th grade, in contrast with only 12 percent of white students.
Descriptive data from the ELS study “show that students who reported either an in-school or out-of-school suspension in the first semester of tenth grade were much less likely to graduate from high school than students with no suspensions.”
Researchers used statistical modeling to account for other variables that associated with both being suspended and dropping out, i.e. issues of causation and correlation, since “of course, students who are suspended may be less likely to graduate from high school for other reasons besides being suspended.”
They controlled for background variables that would also impact a graduation rate, such as test scores, immigration status, parental education level and income.
After applying these controls, data suggested that in Florida, suspensions may increase the risk of dropping out high school by 7 percent. In California, data “suggests that suspension increases the risk of not graduating from high school in California by 13 percentage points, about the same as the national rate.”
Researchers compared earnings, crime, health and welfare data of high school dropouts to high school graduates in order to determine economic costs of dropping out. They estimated “the fiscal and social costs” of dropping out, wherein “a fiscal perspective … considers the economic impact on local, state, and federal taxpayers; and a social perspective … considers the economic impact on the larger society.” It’s important to note that authors did not include two potentially significant factors in their cost estimate: the cost of a young person’s involvement with the juvenile justice system, and the cost associated with efforts to keep them in school.
They focused on data from 2001, when there were 3.5 million tenth graders in the country. Based on the ELS data, 16 percent of those students would have been subject to a suspension, totaling 564,457 students. Based on the study’s models, suspension would have an impact of an additional 67,735 students dropping out.
The financial impact of a student not graduating high school is staggering:
“Multiplying the economic impact per graduate by the number of additional dropouts yields a figure of $11 billion in fiscal impact and $35.7 billion in social impact due to suspensions in the U.S. In other words, the additional 67,735 dropouts caused by suspensions cost U.S. taxpayers $11 billion in lost tax revenues over the lifetimes of these additional dropouts, and they cost the larger society more than $35 billion.”
Once again, since the suspension rates studied disproportionately impact Black students, the study infers that “the economic burden of suspensions is currently harming Black children more than others,” and it may be economically advantageous to be deliberate in closing the racial gap in school discipline as schools work toward reducing suspension rates overall.
A survey of large school districts that are making strides in reducing the suspension rate shows that it is possible to turn these numbers around. Efforts made in Richmond County, Georgia and Saginaw, New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles are all examples of schools dramatically cutting the rate of suspension by shifting the focus of school discipline toward “less exclusionary responses to problematic behavior.”
In the spirit of economic efficiency, researchers conclude that investing dollars into equipping teachers and administration with the skills and tools to use different strategies around school discipline, ones that increase a student’s chance of staying in school, would pay off in the long-term.
To see the full report, click here.