Can Online High School Impact High School Dropout Rates?

Posted by Lauren Ambrosio on April 9, 2024

Over one million American students stop attending high school each year. This decision affects not just the individual, but other students and society as a whole.


High school dropouts often face intermittent unemployment and rely more on government assistance. They are also more prone to entering the criminal justice system and typically earn less than those who graduate.


Can online high school programs help close the gap? We examine why students drop out, how dropout rates impact communities, and how schools can boost graduation rates.


Woman in graduation cap and gown smiling with husband and son.

Impact of high school completion on the individual

Graduating from high school significantly impacts a student's future financial success and stability. High school graduates earn substantially more than dropouts. 


2019 median weekly salaries per education level

  • Did not finish high school: $606
  • High school graduate: $749
  • Some college or associate degree: $874
  • Bachelor’s degree: $1,281
  • Advanced degree: $1,581


Source: BLS


The consequences of dropping out include higher unemployment rates, a greater likelihood of imprisonment, and increased reliance on government assistance.


Holistic impact of high dropout rates on society

High school dropout rates significantly affect society in various ways. Notes Alex Thome, Penn Foster High School Vice President, “there's not a whole lot that holds people back in the same way as not having a high school diploma does. Having a high school diploma definitely helps people get better jobs and make more. But to me, it's more about the doors that open into continued education or into different jobs or career training programs.”


As Alex points out, high school dropout rates impact society economically. They lead to reduced workforce productivity and earnings, higher unemployment, and a skill gap, hindering economic growth and innovation.


Socially, these rates are linked to increased crime, health issues, and a perpetuation of poverty through generations, as children of dropouts are more likely to follow the same path. Politically and civically, lower educational attainment among dropouts results in diminished political and community engagement, impacting the democratic process and civic life. 


High dropout rates worsen wealth gaps and cause us to lose out on the potential of talented people who could make valuable contributions to society. In addition, these rates strain the educational system, highlighting systemic issues and requiring a significant investment of resources to address educational inequality and support students at risk of dropping out.


To effectively address these challenges, we need to take a comprehensive approach that includes educational interventions as well as broad social, economic, and policy measures.


Read more: 5 Strategies to Help Learners Earn a High School Diploma


Why are students dropping out of high school?

In the U.S., about 7,000 students drop out of high school daily. It is ranked 22nd among 27 developed countries. The reasons for dropping out vary: over 27% cite failing classes, about 25% mention boredom, and around 26% leave to care for a family member. Some students find school irrelevant to their future plans.


Other reasons include:

  • Having to repeat a grade
  • Needing to work to support themselves or their family
  • Drug use
  • Pregnancy
  • Gang involvement
  • Excessive absences due to illness or disability
  • Struggling to keep up


A smaller group blames the school environment, including ineffective teaching and mental health challenges. Socioeconomic status is a critical factor; students from low-income areas are more than twice as likely to drop out compared to those in middle-income households.


National high school “dropout factories” vs national graduation rates

Explains Dr. Andy Shean, Chief Learning Officer at Penn Foster, “almost every study you see demonstrates that earning a high school diploma has real value for the rest of your life, in terms of your economic mobility and in terms of your children’s economic success, whether you already have children or choose to have children one day. High school really is about students attaining very specific skills that are going to benefit them long term.”


Unfortunately, the U.S. education system faces disparities due to differences in funding and state policies. About 2,000 high schools, dubbed "dropout factories," graduate less than 60% of their students, accounting for half of the nation's dropouts.


The national graduation rate is 86.5%, with state and Washington D.C. rates varying between 73% and 92%. Disparities are evident among different student demographics, with Asian and Pacific Islander students outperforming Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Alaska Native students. 


For the 2019-20 school year, economically disadvantaged students graduated at a rate of 81.3%, while only 70.6% of students with disabilities completed high school. Students who have English as a second language graduated at 71.3% in 2020.


Read more: How English Language Learners Are Left Behind and What We Can Do About It


Increasing graduation rates in schools

Alex Thome, Vice President at Penn Foster High School, explains, “having a high school diploma can help people earn more, but what it really does is help remove major obstacles that might individuals from going to college, being more respected by their employers, or getting more career training. I think of a high school diploma as a driver of hope and economic mobility–that's what our graduates and learners tell us.”


To boost graduation rates, schools can:

  • Monitor early warning signs such as failing courses or other risk factors.
  • Track attendance closely, as it's crucial for student engagement and success.
  • Encourage teachers to take collective responsibility for student success.
  • Raise academic standards and support students to meet them.
  • Create alternative paths to a high school diploma, such as hybrid and online learning.
  • Build positive relationships between students and school staff.
  • Reevaluate disciplinary practices to prevent exacerbating dropout risks.


Improving national graduation rates can strengthen the U.S. economy and its global competitiveness. While rapid change is unlikely, incremental steps toward improvement can impact the nation's future.


Closing the graduation gap with online high school programs

Online high school programs, such as the one offered by Penn Foster, can play a crucial role in helping more students complete their high school education. These programs are designed to address various challenges and barriers that traditional schooling might pose, effectively helping to close the educational achievement gap.


Says Penn Foster High School Vice President Alex Thome, “many of our learners are resource constrained. They're studying predominately at night and have multiple jobs. They come to high school because they want it behind them, and that’s what we try to do for them.


Here's how online high school programs can make a difference:

  • Flexibility and accessibility
  • Personalized learning experience
  • Supportive environment
  • A safe and inclusive environment
  • Continuity in education
  • Early college and career preparation
  • Dropout recovery and credit recovery
  • Engaging technology and methodology


Online high school programs are a great alternative to traditional schooling, especially for students who have trouble with the traditional system. These programs are flexible, personalized, and supportive, which can help students succeed in completing their high school education.


The goal isn’t just to get everyone across the finish line. By the time an individual graduates high school, they should have a good understanding of the world and be ready to handle whatever comes next.


Read more: Education as a Benefit: The Best Way to Attract and Retain Low-Income Workers


Together we can improve high school graduation rates

Dr. Andy Shean, Chief Learning Officer for Penn Foster, points to the impact of being able to offer students as many prior learning and transfer credits as possible; “we've spent a lot of time creating compassionate policies, trying to be really flexible to serve our learners exactly where they are, with what they need.”


Not every student can excel or even just get by in a standard high school setting. Through offering alternative pathways to graduation, your school can not only increase your graduation rates, but also make a difference for students who may fall through the cracks. Contact us today to learn how partnering with Penn Foster to offer individual classes, credit recovery, and high school completion can make a positive impact for your students.