Urban Wire What happens to teens who leave high school and work
Sierra Latham
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More than 500,000 high school students who walked out the school doors in June will not return when the doors open again this fall. Though some of these young people will become disconnected, neither in school nor working, some of them will leave school and get a job.

We know from a report last year that young people who left high school before earning a diploma and went to work are more likely than students who remain in school to come from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Many of them contribute substantially to their families’ income, which can improve family well-being in the short term. But what happens to these young people later? In a brief we're releasing today, we explore how young people who leave school without a high school diploma and enter the workforce early fare compared with their peers.

Do young people who leave school and work ever go back to school?

Young people who leave school as teens don’t always remain dropouts. A few do reenroll and earn their high school diploma before age 25. However, youth who leave school and go to work are no more likely to attend college by age 25 than their peers who left school and didn’t work as teens.

How do young people who leave school and work do in the labor market as adults?

Early work experience doesn’t make up for not staying in high school to get that diploma. Among the 1,900 young people whose paths we examined, those who dropped out and worked early were twice as likely to be employed at age 25 compared with dropouts who didn’t work at age 17, but they were still much worse off than their classmates who finished high school.

Of those young people who were employed at age 25, those who graduated on time earned $6,000 more annually, or an additional 35 percent, compared with those who left high school without a diploma. This suggests that the job market values a high school diploma above an early employment history.

What does this mean for policy?

Policymakers should prioritize programs that prevent working youth from dropping out of high school. The University of Minnesota’s Check & Connect model, for example, coordinates individualized support for disengaged students and helps working students balance their work and academic obligations. Students in this program are assigned to program staff members who monitor their performance and behavior in school, advocate on their behalf, and provide consistent encouragement to stay in school. Program staff can coordinate with additional service providers based on each student’s needs. Evaluations of Check & Connect have shown that students in the program are more likely to stay in school.

We need to ensure programs serve working youth who leave school before earning a diploma. Current public policies focus on improving the lives of the so-called disconnected. Our findings, however, show that even having early work experience doesn’t help youth who leave high school without a diploma very much. Programs targeting youth who dropped out of high school should be expanded to include all young people, not just those who are not working. Policymakers should also consider avenues, such as dropout recovery programs, that provide these young people an opportunity to reenroll and complete their high school education, giving them a second chance to catch up with their graduated peers in the job market.

Any of these programs can improve the adult outcomes of the young workers we’ve studied in this policy brief. A program like Check & Connect could prevent working students from getting to the point where they have to make the hard choice of whether to stay in school or work. For working dropouts who have already passed this point, dropout recovery programs provide frameworks for balancing short-term obligations against opportunities for long-term advancement. A comprehensive approach incorporating aspects of each type of policy would serve potential dropouts at multiple stages of the decisionmaking process and help more people realize their economic potential.

Research Areas Children and youth
Tags Employment Economic well-being Schooling
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center