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Solving the “dropout crisis” is critical for state, Vice Provost Rumberger says

Dropping out of high school is a “severe” problem that costs California an estimated $19.5 billion every year, said Russ Rumberger, vice provost for education partnerships, in an April 19 appearance at UCOP, part of the President’s Speaker Series.

“Each student is a story, so it’s hard to generalize,” he said, admitting that identifying the true causes of dropping out is a complex exercise.

But understanding what contributes to a student’s growing disillusionment, recognizing early predictors in at-risk students, and identifying attitudes and behaviors that lead to dropping out are critical to addressing the problem.

Rumberger’s talk centered around his book, Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It, published last year by Harvard University Press and described as a “masterpiece” by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews.

“I wrote my first paper on this topic 30 years ago,” Rumberger said. “I was worried about this group at the bottom of the educational distribution, which suffers greatly in any society — the group that is poorly educated.”

Rumberger is a professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara. He is founding director of the California Dropout Research Project (CDRP), which developed a policy agenda to improve the state’s high school graduation rate. Since the CDRP’s inception in 2006, three pieces of legislation based on its recommendations have been signed into law to address what Rumberger calls “the dropout crisis.”

California’s dropout rate of roughly 25 percent has dire consequences for the state both economically and socially, Rumberger said. He estimated the cost in dollars based on these metrics:

  • Dropouts are more likely to be poor, with lower wages, higher unemployment and reduced tax contributions.
  • Dropouts commit more crimes and have reduced political participation and intergenerational mobility.
  • Dropouts have poorer health and a lower life expectancy by nine years than those who graduate from high school.

“Every time a kid fails a class, it raises his chances of dropping out,” Rumberger said. Other causes include time missed from school, low educational aspirations, family and mobility issues, and misbehavior; and causes vary widely by families, communities and schools as well as demographics like language, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

There is no single solution, Rumberger said. Past successful strategies range from programmatic solutions focusing on the student to comprehensive school reform and policy changes. But intervention must start early, using strategies such as smaller class sizes in grades K–3, since the process of dropping out begins well before a student even enters high school.

Rumberger also advocates fresh approaches that essentially redefine what it means to be successful in high school, like establishing personalized learning environments and emphasizing not just reading, writing and arithmetic, but also non-cognitive skills such as motivation and trustworthiness.

“If we redesign high school so that every kid could achieve competence in something — whether it’s math or building a house — we could fundamentally address this problem,” Rumberger said.

UC and other research universities have a critical role in the solution to the dropout crisis by supporting K–12 education, especially for underrepresented students, to enhance the pipeline to bachelor’s degrees and the workforce, Rumberger said. This is the work he does as vice provost for education partnerships at UCOP.

You can purchase Dropping Out online or download the first chapter for free. If you purchase the book and would like him to sign it, contact Gina Mortenson at

The President’s Speaker Series, “On California,” was initiated by President Mark Yudof last year to showcase the talent and public contributions of UC faculty, alumni and other prominent Californians in the areas of education, policy/politics and research.

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