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Why Students Drop Out of School and What Can Be Done

Authors: Russell W. Rumberger
Date Published: May 01, 2001

Because dropping out is influenced by both individual and institutional factors, intervention strategies can focus on either or both sets of factors. That is, intervention strategies can focus on addressing the individual values, attitudes, and behaviors that are associated with dropping out without attempting to alter the characteristics of families, schools, and communities that may contribute to those individual factors. Many dropout prevention programs pursue such programmatic strategies by providing would-be dropouts with additional resources and supports to help them stay in school.
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This paper examines why students drop out of school and what can be done about it. After briefly summarizing who drops out of school, the paper reviews the theoretical and empirical research that attempts to explain why students drop out of school based on two different conceptual frameworks that are both useful and necessary to understand this complex phenomenon. One framework is based on an individual perspective that focuses on individual factors associated with dropping out; the other is based on an institutional perspective that focuses on the contextual factors found in students’ families, schools, communities and peers. The paper also discusses the extent to which these frameworks can be used explain differences in dropout rates among social groups, particularly racial and ethnic minorities. The next section of the paper examines various strategies to address the dropout, reviewing examples of both programmatic and systemic solutions, and the extent to which policy can promote them. The final section of the paper discusses whether the United States has the capacity and the will to reduce dropout rates and eliminate disparities in dropout rates among racial and ethnic groups.

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