The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Trends and Determinants of Dropouts' Educational Mobility: A Cross-Cohort Study

Friday, January 18, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Jeounghee Kim, PhD, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Myungkook Joo, PhD, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ

Recently, President Obama recognized that the educational attainment of Americans has fallen behind most other industrialized countries. The president began an initiative whose goal is to help the United States become the country with the highest percentage of college-educated people by the end of the decade. Recent statistics report that approximately 45% of all adults 25 years and older had only a high-school education or less in 2009. One way to incorporate the least educated individuals into higher education is to look at whether and how they can advance their educational attainment through a second-chance program. Drawing on status-attainment and life-course theories, the purpose of this study is to examine the probabilities, determinants, and recent trends in the acquisition of GEDs and postsecondary degrees for 3 cohorts of dropouts: 1961–1970, 1971–1980, and 1981–1990.


Using the second waves of the 2004 and 2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, this study selected 8,991 individuals who dropped out of school between 1961 and 1990 without earning regular high school diplomas. It utilized series of discrete-time logit models to estimate the probabilities of acquisition of GED within 7 years of leaving school and postsecondary degrees within 14 years of leaving school while controlling for demographic characteristics and various life events such as employment, marriage, childbirths, and welfare receipt.  


The findings revealed that fewer than 20% of high school dropouts acquired a GED within 7 years of dropping out and fewer than 5% of dropouts acquired a postsecondary degree within 14 years of dropping out. The study also found that employment, English fluency, and GED certification were significant determinants of completing a postsecondary degree, but life events such as marriage and childbirth were not significant determinants. Finally, the study found that the mobility of male dropouts remained stable, but female dropouts demonstrated increasingly higher rates of degree attainment over the study years.


These findings have many implications for policy interventions for the dropout population. Based on the evidence from this study, three such implications are to give more attention to increase English proficiency, employment opportunities, and GED certification. Despite the fact that dropouts make the most of prison and poverty populations, research consistently shows that higher education is significantly related to reductions in recidivism and economic deprivation among disadvantaged populations. Therefore, it is important to ensure that dropouts can take advantage of second-chance opportunities and improve their educational attainment to avoid falling back into prison or poverty. Although it may be best to prevent school dropout from the beginning, ushering existing dropouts back into the educational system seems as important as prevention.