Public Policy Forum Blog

The cost of Milwaukee's drop-outs, and what to do about it

A new report by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates the economic costs to cities of having high drop-out rates. In the four-county Milwaukee metro area, it is estimated that cutting the drop-out rate in half, or having an additional 3,200 high school graduates annually, would result in an additional $7 million in annual state and local property, income, and sales tax revenue, due to the higher salaries and increased spending associated with being a high school graduate. The graduates themselves "would together earn nearly $41 million in additional wages over the course of an average year compared to their likely earnings without a diploma." The report also notes that in the Milwaukee area, of the 98 high schools analyzed, 23 were found to be "drop-out factories" in which fewer than 60% of freshman progress to their senior year on time.

How to remake these "drop-out factories" back into schools is the focus of another new report, this one by the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices. The report recommends four actions that state governors can take to tackle high drop-out rates:

  1. Promote high school graduation. The NGA suggests that governors increase the age of compulsory school attendance, weight graduation rates heavily in school accountability schemes, and appoint a drop-out czar or other high-level official to be accountable for statewide improvements.
  2. Target youth at risk of dropping out. State data systems can be designed to help identify at risk students as early as possible, making them eligible for intervention and support programs prior to high school.
  3. Re-engage youth who have dropped out. Re-entry programs for juvenile offenders can be an important tool for getting drop-outs back into school. States can also create financial incentives or rewards for schools that successfully matriculate and graduate former drop-outs.
  4. Provide rigorous, relevant options for earning a high school diploma. This includes offering an array of high school programs focused on job readiness for those students planning to enter the workforce after high school.

As an NGA report, the recommendations are aimed at state policymakers. But some of these policies could be adopted at the local level. Connections between school and work are an example of an area in which an effective local policy might even be better than a state-wide effort.

Drop-outs are a costly problem for the regional economy and southeast Wisconsin cannot afford to wait for whomever next holds the governor's office to tackle this problem. With support of local political and business leaders, best practices could be implemented at the district level sooner, rather than later.

Anneliese Dickman