Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


empty-high-school

(PHOTO: LISSANDRA MELO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Even for Dropouts, Being on the Right Side of the Digital Divide Matters

• November 13, 2013 • 5:29 PM

(PHOTO: LISSANDRA MELO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

If you drop out of high school, odds are you’ll end up in a dead-end job for life. But the odds get a lot better if you happen to have some computer skills.

The assumption in industrialized countries is that if you don’t go to college your future is likely pretty bleak. As the title of a 1998 report read, “To the Educated, the Spoils.” And to the uneducated, the spoiled.

And if you didn’t even graduate high school. Ooh, let the hand-wringing begin. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the average income for a dropout (in 2009) was $19,540 compared to $27,380 for a graduate and $46,930 for someone with a bachelor’s degree. High school dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed, to be let go first when times get tough, and to end up in prison (82 percent of inmates don’t have a diploma).

First off, the picture isn’t quite as dire as dropout rates from schools suggest. Yes, about a quarter of U.S. high school freshmen don’t graduate four years later, as expected. But by age 24, according to federal figures, only about one in 10 don’t have a diploma or its legal equivalent. Right now, 78.2 percent of high school freshmen graduate on schedule, the best that that stat has been in 30 years. Historically, we’re doing pretty good:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1910, only 13.5% of the adult population had completed secondary school. By mid-century, one-third (34.3%) of the population had completed 12 years of school. And by century’s end, 84.1% of the adult population held a high school diploma.

None of which is meant to put a gloss on a sorry outcome. These figures are a national average, and based on ethnicity, geography, and gender, your results may vary. Plus, even if you accept these numbers, and there are a lot of ways to derive dropout figures and many methods don’t provide such a happy picture, the life of a dropout as we’ve seen is likely to be grim.

A new paper in The Social Science Journal takes a deeper look at what happens to dropouts career-wise, and offers some hope. “One fact that cannot be overlooked is that not every high school dropout ends up in a dead-end job,” writes author Kyung-Nyun Kim of the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training. Yes, seven out of 10 do—but three out of 10 find a way up, albeit later in life.

(Given Kim’s home institution, studying dropouts must verge on the exotic. South Korea’s graduation rate after four years of high school is 93 percent, the highest in the world. “No one just drops out of school,” a Korean principal once told a USA Today reporter. “A student may transfer to another school, but no one just drops out. … To drop out of school is a major disaster, a catastrophe. It wouldn’t happen unless it was unavoidable.”)

After looking at data from the National Longitudinal Study Youth 97 survey (a longitudinal study of almost 9,000 Americans who were age 12 to 16 on December 31, 1996) Kim has found one key takeaway—having a computer in their home during their high school years gives a big boost to the likelihood that they’ll be among the fortunate 30 percent.

Sorting dropout job trajectories into three categories—dead-end (69 percent of drop-outs), stepping stone (23 percent), and advancing (eight percent)—Kim says the presence of a computer in a dropout’s home makes them 61 percent more likely to achieve a stepping-stone career and 126 percent more likely to eventually reach an advancing career. Yes, even for the most unprepared, the digital divide matters:

The benefit of having a computer at home prepares workers for the modern labor market, and the lack of computer skills may drive dropouts to more rudimentary jobs that do not offer career advancement.

Kim also revealed some interesting demographic data. Female dropouts are more likely than men to end up in the top trajectory, advancing career. Kim and others who have studied gender wage gaps speculate that among low skilled jobs, the female-centric service sector offers more long-term opportunity than the male-dominated industrial and manufacturing sector.

Now for the bad news. Despite institutional strides, black dropouts are more likely than white dropouts to end up in dead-end jobs. In a different paper in the journal Education and Urban Society, Kim made this disparity explicit:

Black workers initially hold lower occupational standing com­pared with White workers, even after controlling for background variables. Disadvantages in Black workers are not compensated by work experience or credentials. Initial difference at entry-level work has persistent effects on the racial occupational gap. This implies that individual effort cannot solve a struc­tural hole in the minority treatment of the labor market, and policy intervention is needed to narrow the racial disparities.

As far as those policies go, Kim suggests that on the whole, dropouts are not seeking college education. Therefore, programs that provide genuine occupational skills, like vocational certificates, are more valuable than programs that offer diploma simulacra, like the General Educational Development test, or GED.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.