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A lifeline to high school dropouts

Nearly a third of students failed to graduate. Universities must step in.

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Spring is a time of pride and joy for families of the 3 million students who will graduate from American high schools this year. As a nation, however, this number should embarrass us. That is because nearly a third of students who began as freshmen four years ago dropped out of high school and will not receive a traditional diploma.

The situation in our urban school districts is bleaker still. According to a Manhattan Institute analysis of government data from 2003, at least 40 percent of students failed to graduate from the nation's 10 largest public districts. Results are even more distressing for minority students, especially boys. Less than half of black and Hispanic males will earn a high school diploma at the current graduation rate.

Though some will later earn a GED and achieve personal and professional success, most dropouts will be relegated to life at the economic margins of society.

Our country sounds the alarm on dropout rates with some regularity. A recent Time magazine cover piece, "Dropout Nation," has pundits pointing fingers at the usual suspects: lax education laws, poorly trained teachers, and indifferent parents.

But societal conditions, like dysfunctional classrooms, student boredom, discrimination, and communities torn by drugs and violence, also are to blame. Indeed, for many dropouts, these conditions were a part of their lives long before high school.

Therefore, dropouts are not only saying good riddance to a lousy school experience; they are reflecting a complex set of social and educational ills in need of systemic solutions.

Because of this complexity, blaming a single cause is not a wise approach. To reverse this calamity, we first need two major changes of perspective.

To begin, we must acknowledge that more than just being a weakness in public secondary education, today's dropout rate signifies a societal crisis of the first order - one that is leading to the steady erosion of American democracy.

The right to a quality education is the backbone of our economic health and a cornerstone of our social compact. But our republic simply cannot thrive when nearly a third of its future citizens do not receive the most basic level of education to allow for full participation in society.

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