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Paying Now or Paying Later

The cost of allowing or encouraging youth with learning and behavioral problems to drop out of school - which is enormous - can be measured in terms of both reduced economic productivity and an increased burden on the police and other local services.

Youth with learning and behavioral problems who are pushed out or otherwise do not complete high school are most likely to develop delinquent behaviors and be arrested. For example:

  • The arrest rate among high school dropouts with disabilities was 56 percent, compared with 16 percent among graduates, and 10 percent among those who "aged out" of school.
  • Among dropouts with serious emotional disturbances, the arrest rate was 73 percent, three to five years after secondary school (Wagner, D'Amico, Marder, Newman, and Blackorby, 1992).

In addition, the country's economic productivity is significantly reduced when high school dropouts with disabilities experience prolonged periods of unemployment or underemployment, with the accompanying loss of earned wages and fringe benefits:

  • High Unemployment. Youth with learning disabilities who do not complete high school have unemployment rates about 30 percent higher than high school graduates with learning disabilities.
  • Low Wages. Youth with learning disabilities who do not complete high school earn one-third less than high school graduates with learning disabilities.

If local schools do not face (and solve) problem behaviors while youth are still enrolled, local communities must shoulder extra burdens, including:

  • Increased need for social services for dropouts who lack independence. Compared to high school graduates with disabilities, high school dropouts with learning and behavioral problems are
    • Less likely to attend colleges or universities,
    • Less likely to obtain vocational training, and
    • Less likely to live independently in the community.
  • Increased need for prisons, because high school dropouts include approximately
    • 75 percent of youth involved with the juvenile court system,
    • 66 percent of adult inmates, and
    • 80 percent of all Federal prisoners (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1995).
  • Increased cost of incarceration, at an average rate of $51,000, per prisoner, per year (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1991; US Select Committee, 1992).
Voices of Experience - A Police Chief's Warning

"We know that keeping kids off the streets and in school prevents crime.... (However), suspending or expelling students, leaving them free to roam the streets without supervision, is a prescription for increasing juvenile crime. Instead of facing students' behavioral problems and holding students accountable, it rewards students with a free pass truancy and exports the problem from the school to the larger community."

Police Chief Kevin Comerford (Buffalo, NY)
U.S. House Subcommittee Testimony
February 1997

For society, the annual cost of providing for youth who fail to complete high school and their families is $76 billion - or approximately $800 for each taxpayer in states and localities across the country (Joint Economic Committee, 1991).


Federal Bureau of Prisons. (1991). Washington, DC: Department of Research and Evaluation.

Joint Economic Committee (1991, August). Doing drugs and dropping out: A report prepared for the use of the subcommittee on economic growth, trade, and taxes of the joint economic committee. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (1995). Juvenile offenders and victims: A national report.Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice.

US Select Committee. (1992, March). On the edge of the American dream: A social and economic profile in 1992. Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Wagner, M., D'Amico, R., Marder, C., Newman, L. & Blackorby, J. (1992). What happens next? Trends in post-school outcomes of youth with disabilities. The second comprehensive report from the national longitudinal transition strudy of special education students. SRI International. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.


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