Don't Call Them Dropouts Cover


Don't Call Them Dropouts

Alma Powell

Language is important.  Labels matter.

With the report we are releasing today, we recommend that we stop using the term “dropout" when referring to young people who leave school without graduating. The young people our Center for Promise interviewed specifically asked that we not call them dropouts because this is not how they think of themselves, and their stories and our survey results confirm this reality. Yes, they left school, but they did not quit, and we should not and cannot quit on them.

I am proud to share with you “Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” a report authored by America’s Promise Alliance that looks deeply into the lived experiences of young people who left high school without graduating on time. We wanted to hear directly from young people who left school about what is happening in their lives that stands in the way of completing high school.

We’re calling these young people “non-graduates” for lack of better shorthand, because the young people we encountered were often emphatic that they did not really “drop out” of anything. “Please, don’t call us dropouts!” youth after youth implored our researchers.

Most told us that they left school not out of boredom or lack of motivation, but because they faced tremendously challenging circumstances in their daily lives, including homelessness, violent surroundings, abuse or neglect, or catastrophic family health events. The decision to leave school seemed like a way to deal with immediate and urgent situations.

Perhaps most heart breaking findings were that so many of the young people we interviewed and surveyed said they searched in vain for a caring adult who could help them keep their lives on track. Eventually, they decided to leave school in order to attend to more urgent needs in their lives.

This is not right. At a time when we rightly celebrate reaching an 80 percent on-time high school graduation rate for the first time, we at America’s Promise issue this report to focus our attention on the very real challenges that confront the remaining 20 percent who are still not graduating on time, if ever.

You can find the full report, summary documents in English and Spanish, and brief a brief video at

I urge you to read the report and share it within your personal and professional circles. Most importantly, I urge you to recommit yourself to being there for young people in your life and community who need your love, guidance and constant presence to help them earn their own chance at the American Dream.

Alma Powell is chair of America's Promise Alliance.