Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Ages & Stages

When a Teen Wants to Drop Out

“I’m thinking of quitting school. I’ve never been a good student, and it’s not like I plan to become a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that. I want to be a master mechanic; maybe open up my own auto-repair shop someday.”

Most parents would probably be distraught if their youngster announced that he intended to drop out of high school. In today’s job market, not having a college degree can be a roadblock to many careers; lacking a high-school diploma closes off even more avenues. Overall, young people seem to understand the financial consequences of leaving school prematurely. From 1960 through 1996, the ratio of high-school dropouts among men and women ages sixteen to twenty-four declined steadily from about one in four to one in ten.

The law mandates that children must attend school until age sixteen. After that, neither parents nor school authorities have any legal recourse to prevent them from quitting. Some youngsters drop out to get married or because they’ve had a baby; others are eager to get a head start on earning a regular paycheck. However, it’s probably accurate to say that the vast majority are relieved to cut short their high-school years, which they often spent adrift, bored and socially isolated. For them, exiting the school doors may very well be the first step toward finding their direction in life. Let’s be honest: Not everyone is scholastically minded or meant to work at a so-called white-collar job. Other opportunities await. These youngsters can learn a trade or cultivate a talent in the arts, athletics or some other endeavor, and go on to become as successful and fulfilled as their peers with diplomas.

The parents of a youngster at this crossroads must assess his strengths and weaknesses honestly. If the proper educational program or extra assistance were provided, could he raise his school performance to an acceptable level? Or would pressuring him to stay in school merely prolong a futile, and possibly damaging, situation?

What You Can Do

To the youngster who is considering quitting school, point out the widening gulf between the earnings of high-school dropouts versus high-school graduates, and between high-school graduates and college graduates. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the median annual income of men who quit high school was just $13,961 in 1993. High-school graduates earned $20,870; men with some college under their belts, $23,435; and college grads, $32,708. Among women, the gap between median salaries for high-school dropouts and college grads was even wider: $7,674 and $26,043, respectively. Women who only graduated high school earn salaries 5 percent lower than those who graduated from college. What’s more, three in five recent highschool graduates not enrolled in college were employed, compared to just two in five recent high-school dropouts.

Work with the school staff to improve your child’s school experience. Perhaps your youngster would be interested in a work-study program, which allows her to gain practical experience in a field that appeals to her while continuing with school.

To give you an example, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), located in Maryland, hires local high-school seniors to work sixteen to twenty-five hours per week in one of four areas, including accounting and clerical work. The students receive salaries, as well as sick leave and an option to participate in the NSA’s health- and life-insurance programs. Private companies, too, arrange similar programs with high schools. A member of the guidance-counseling staff should be able to route you to the person in charge of coordinating workexperience programs. Investigate all options before a teen drops out of school.

Once a teenager has made up his mind to drop out of school, be supportive— but don’t support him financially! If he lives at home, insist that he pay for room and board as well as cover his car insurance and other personal expenses. This is important, even though the average high-school dropout earns just $270 a week.

When parents let a grown child live at home rent-free, they’re feeding the adolescent’s fantasy that she is independent and self-supporting. They’re also smothering any incentive for moving up, not to mention moving out. Mom and Dad need to impose a reality check. The realization that her paycheck barely stretches far enough to cover necessities—never mind having money left over for recreation and luxuries—may be the impetus that motivates a dropout to become one of the 750,000 or so adults who earn a general equivalency diploma (GED) each year. With rare exception, employers hire GED graduates on the same basis as high-school grads. In fact, one in seven men and women who receive their high-school diploma do so by passing the GED tests, which cover writing skills, social studies, literature and the arts, and mathematics.

That’s important for discouraged parents to remember: A teenager’s quitting school doesn’t necessarily spell the end of her education. Through entering the workforce, she may discover a career that she enjoys, and decide to get her GED and a college degree in order to advance herself. According to the American Council on Education, two in three GED test-takers plan to enter a college, university, trade school, technical school or business school the following year.

Last Updated
Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
Follow Us