“Don’t Call Them Dropouts:” Report Tells Personal Stories of Those Who Don’t Graduate from High School; Sheds New Light on How to Help

Non-graduates say they left school to deal with adverse life events, did not find adults who could help them stay in school


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Students who leave high school without graduating say they do so not out of boredom or lack of motivation, but because they are overwhelmed by the effects of toxic living conditions on their daily lives, including homelessness, violent surroundings, abuse or neglect, catastrophic family health events, and the absence of caring adults who can help them stay in school, according to a report released today titled “Don’t Call Them Dropouts.”

In the largest nationwide study of its kind to date, young adults who left high school without graduating spoke at length about their experiences and the reasons they did not complete high school on time. As the nation reaches the all-time high of an 80 percent on-time high school graduation rate, this report listens deeply to what the remaining 20 percent say is happening in their lives, and what they need to stay in school. Their answers defy some common beliefs about why they do not graduate on time, while giving deeper meaning to others.

“Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” a report by America’s Promise Alliance based on research conducted by its Center for Promise at Tufts University, was funded by Target. It is part of the GradNation campaign to reach the national goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

The researchers began with in-depth interviews with more than 200 young people who had not graduated from high school, and then conducted a quantitative survey of more than 2,000 young adults ages 18-25 who did not complete high school on time.  In addition, 1,000 students who graduated on time were surveyed. To view the full report visit http://GradNation.org/NotDropouts.

“Over and over we heard from young people who wanted to stay in school, but multiple life events  stood in their way of simply going to school and being able to concentrate on learning,” said Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise. “Gradually, they became overwhelmed. Perhaps most heart-breaking, they tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to find adults who could help them.”

The stories in “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” describe young people’s difficulties with family and community, and illustrate the strength and resilience as they re-engage in school or otherwise try to find a path to success. View a video of youth sharing their stories about leaving school.

“It is easy to label young people who leave school as ‘dropouts’ and to conclude that these young people are unmotivated, that they are quitters or losers. We’ve tried to dig deeper to better understand the challenges these young people face and choices they make,” said John Gomperts, President and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “The stories we heard were full of heartbreak and hope.  This report gives a crucial window into the lives of young people who choose to leave school, and in this way helps us devise responses that will help young people stay on track to adult success.”

“Target believes in putting the youth voice front and center in this national conversation about the barriers to high school graduation,” said Laysha Ward, president, community relations, Target. “Now it's essential that we turn these insights into action, ensuring that all young people are positioned for success in a 21st century economy.”

The study found that non-graduates typically leave school due to a cluster of factors, not a singular event. Those experiencing homelessness were 87 percent more likely to leave school; those with an incarcerated parent 79 percent more likely to leave prematurely. In addition, 50 percent of youth who did not graduate on time reported moving homes frequently, 50 percent reported changing schools frequently, and 11 percent lived in foster care (versus 2 percent of on-time graduates). They also described toxic living environments, often violent homes, schools, or neighborhoods; instances of personal or family and health trauma; or unsafe, unsupportive school climates.

Participants said they consistently seek supportive connections with others, which can either lead them toward or away from school. For the most part, young people who did not graduate on time felt they were without anyone to set them on a path to success.

The young people who participated in the research study displayed strong resilience, but needed support to succeed. Youth repeatedly said they did not “drop out,” but instead stopped going to school to cope with their immediate circumstances, such as going to work to support their family, helping a sick family member, or finding a safe and secure home. Of those surveyed who were back completing their education, connecting with a supportive adult and re-engagement program often provided that path to success.

About the report’s name

The report’s name comes from the plea of many participants not to defined with the pejorative label of “dropouts,” as they do not believe it fairly reflects their circumstances. “They don’t feel they’ve dropped out of anything,” Zaff said. “They reluctantly concluded that school was either nonresponsive or irrelevant to their urgent needs, so leaving became a necessity for them to take control of their lives.”

“We’ve stopped calling these young people ‘dropouts,’” Alma J. Powell, chairwoman of America’s Promise Alliance, said recently at remarks to the 2014 Building a GradNation Summit, held in Washington, DC. “When telling us why they left, they talk very little about what happened in school and very much about what happened in life, the obstacles and choices that they faced in getting to school and staying in school.”


Based on the insights from youth participants, “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” includes five recommendations for reducing the dropout rate and supporting at-risk youth:

  1. Listen to young Americans who are struggling to get through high school, as they offer unique perspectives and even overlooked truths about what is occurring in their lives.
  2. Surround the highest-need young people with extra supports, including early warning systems such as those whose attendance, behavior, and course performance suggest they may need extra support to stay in school.
  3. Create and support high-touch community navigators to help at-risk youth cope with multiple adverse life events.
  4. Follow the evidence to find effective solutions. Both large-scale studies and evaluations of individual programs suggest what it takes to support at-risk youth.
  5. Place young people in central roles for designing and implementing responses. Youth play an important role in finding solutions, not only through their activism, but also by sharing their stories of challenge and ultimate triumph.




America’s Promise Alliance is the nation’s largest partnership dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth. We bring together more than 400 national organizations representing nonprofit groups, businesses, communities, educators and policymakers. Through our GradNation campaign, we mobilize Americans improve on-time high school graduation rates to 90 percent by 2020, so young people are prepared for college and the 21st century workforce. Building on the legacy of our founding chairman General Colin Powell, America’s Promise believes the success of young people is grounded in the Five Promises—Caring Adults, Safe Places, A Healthy Start, Effective Education, and Opportunities to Help Others. For more information, visit AmericasPromise.org