It’s Time We Get Practical About the High School Drop Out Rate and Juvenile Delinquency

For the past decade, the U.S. high school drop out rate in our inner cities has remained constant or between 40 to 50 percent of high school students. The first inclination is to blame the schools for the high drop out rate. Obviously, if a high percentage of your customers (students) reject what you’re selling, it must be the product or the customers are simply not interested in buying? Another culprit might be family or parents not setting boundaries or making school a priority? Whatever the case, the problem of high school dropouts may not be that complicated or complex and might easily be solved or maybe the numbers cut in half by looking at a few intangibles. Could we possibly connect the drop out rate to the degree to which we address the vocational interests of juveniles?

For years I have worked with high school dropouts who end up in juvenile correctional institutions. Many students who drop out of school often break the law, their only graduation becoming a trip to juvenile hall. A study conducted by the Washington State Office of Corrections found that 70% of prison inmates do time in juvenile corrections and another study by U.C. Santa Barbara found that it costs the state (CA) about $1.1 billion a year in juvenile crime costs, but the economic loss from juvenile crimes is about $8.9 billion per year. Starting at 12 years old, juveniles will cause about $1 billion dollars in economic losses. Throughout their lifetime they will cost the state about $10.5 billion.

When I asked juvenile offenders to name some reasons why they dropped out of school, they often used words such as “boring,” “not interested” or  “I needed to make money and get a job,” and so forth. However, if we investigate their responses, we might begin to shed light on a possible solution to the drop out rate as well as to juvenile delinquency.

For example, I have used vocational assessments to motivate higher learning and career awareness with juvenile offenders and/or school dropouts. Over a five-year period, 75 % of male juvenile offenders chose vocational interests associated with a realistic and conventional personality. The realistic and conventional vocational personalities represent those males interested and even motivated to learn or work in the trade industry such as auto mechanics, carpentry, plumbing, landscape design, etc. Conversely, 70 percent of female juvenile offenders chose a vocational personality, which is associated with the social and artistic personality. This personality was defined as being highly social and creative with interests in careers connected with hairdressing, dental hygiene, preschool education, jewelry design, and so forth.

In many respects, perhaps the solution has now become the problem. That is, we refuse to recognize the connection that dropouts and /or juvenile offenders might need a different school curriculum or one that complements their vocational personality or interests with school learning. In short, when you connect an at-risk population with high vocational interests you are in effect defining a major cause of the high drop out rate and delinquency of high school students. We need to take the advice of Joseph Pearce, author of Magical Child, and stimulate the ability to learn through connection to the heart. We need to offer curriculum that “serves as a catalyst to greater brain activity or emotional intelligence”(Pearce).

The moral of the story? The cost to build Sonoma County’s juvenile hall facility (Los Guilicos) was about 38 million dollars. The cost to build a new technical high school probably more. However, the average cost to incarcerate a high school drop out turned juvenile offender in California for one year can vary from $125,000 to $175,000! (*American Correctional Association, 2008 Directory). The cost to educate a California high school student for one year is about $9,000 (NCES-2010). What do you think makes more sense? For your comments contact Dr. David Sortino at or go to his blog: