When Dropping Out of School is the Rational Thing to Do

The conventional wisdom is that all young people should stay in school and at least graduate from high school. To take another position is nearly heresy, yet there are, in fact, situations in which “dropping out” is quite rational.

And the decision becomes more rational the further a given student falls from the middle of the road in in terms of curriculum, extracurricular activities, grades, etc. The reason is that our K-12 schools are not designed to meet the needs of individual students. The system is designed to get as many kids through as possible at the least expense and with the fewest problems.

Imagine a student who has not experienced a great deal of success in school. He is in 9th grade, but reads at a 4th grade level. He can’t access the curriculum and he flunks half his classes because he can’t read well enough to complete assignments or pass tests. In fact, in 9th grade his chance of graduating from high school is already almost mathematically nil. He does not qualify for special education and gets no meaningful additional help. Even the curriculum he can access has no personal meaning to him and does not reflect his culture. The things that do interest him are not available in his school.

Now, further imagine that a student in a similar situation is also socially ostracized and being in school is a soul-crushing experience every day. She is verbally abused and occasionally physically bullied as well.

And at least in the situations described above, a student’s life is not directly threatened. However, what if a student attends a school with gang and other criminal activity that threatens his health or life? Would staying in the school environment be a smart choice?

In all the cases above, the students are relatively mainstream, heterosexual, gender-binary kids. In cases where that is not true, a typical school environment can be one of the least affirming, least emotionally safe places a young person could choose to be.

So, in many cases, asking or encouraging or forcing a young person to stay in school, may actually be an irrational or even dangerous thing to do! There is a spectrum from simply being academically ineffective to being actually unsafe, but for the many young people on that spectrum, the conventional wisdom of “stay in school” may be wrong.

Our K-12 system needs well funded alternative paths that include home study, apprenticeships, internships, and paid work opportunities so that students for whom the school environment is ineffective or downright destructive have good, non-stigmatized options—and we need to take a step back from the knee-jerk “stay in school” propaganda that suggests that dropping out is only for losers! For some kids, dropping out could be the smartest decision they’ve ever made.

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