Every school day, almost 7,000 students become dropouts, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Lacking a high school diploma, these individuals will be far more likely to spend their lives periodically unemployed, on government assistance, or-worst of all-cycling in and out of the prison system.

Every school day, almost 7,000 students become dropouts, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE, Washington). In its recent report The High Cost of High School Dropouts, the AEE says that adds up to about 1.3 million students annually who will not graduate from high school with their peers as scheduled. Lacking a high school diploma, these individuals will be far more likely to spend their lives periodically unemployed, on government assistance, or-worst of all-cycling in and out of the prison system.

The direct economic penalty of this decision to drop out of school is significant. The average annual income for a high school dropout in 2005 was $17,299, compared to $26,933 for a high school graduate, a difference of $9,634 according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The adverse impact on the country’s economy-and society as a whole-is also significant, although not immediately recognized.

There’s a big potential for payoff if the nation’s secondary schools improved enough to graduate all of their students, instead of the 70 percent currently graduated annually. For example, the AEE says that if the students who dropped out of the class of 2007 had graduated, the nation’s economy would have benefitted from an additional $329 billion in income over their lifetimes.

In her 2005 paper Labor Market Consequences of an Inadequate Education, Cecilia E. Rouse, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, shows that each dropout, over his or her lifetime, costs the nation approximately $260,000. She projected that unless high schools are able to graduate their students at higher rates, more than 12 million students will drop out during the next decade, resulting in a loss to the nation of $3 trillion.

But the payoff from correcting the dropout problem extends much further than the dollars that don’t show up in the pockets of dropouts. Writing in the AEE publication Profiles in Leadership, former U.S Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, says that only 64 percent of males finish high school on time in the United States. Some of those individuals, instead of ending up in low-pay dead-end jobs, might well have gone into, for example, apprentice programs leading to careers as tool and die makers, just to name one skilled trade in very short supply today. Others might well have gone on through college to graduate school. Considering the frequently reported shortfall in U.S.-born science and engineering Ph.D. candidates, this would be a boon to American society.

Ignorance is expensive. The social and economic penalty of failing to adequately educate the next generations of citizens is probably growing exponentially. It doesn’t take rocket science to deduce that this loss of potential engineers, scientists, manufacturing leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and myriad others deprives the nation of skills sorely needed to maintain our standard of living and competitive stature in the global economy. We should be able to expect better than from our school boards and elected officials than 7,000 dropouts every day!