The National Center for Education Statistics found that public high school graduation rates for the 2019 - 2020 school year were the highest they’ve been since we started tracking them in 2010. However, it’s important to note that, historically, graduation rates have fluctuated widely.
The reasons for students not graduating from high school vary and can include socioeconomic factors, mental health issues, lack of support in the home, and more. The “why” behind a low graduation rate can differ, but it’s essential to understand what causes low graduation rates so we can offer students what they need to be successful in reaching this pivotal milestone in young adult life.
Research shows that poverty rates are highest amongst populations that did not receive a high school diploma. In fact, 29% of people without diplomas live in poverty, vs just 5% of those who graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Not finishing high school affects more than just the person who didn’t graduate — it has implications for society as well as the economy.
Keep reading to explore in-depth reasons for low graduation rates, what contributes to them, and what we can do about it.
1. Socioeconomic factors
Socioeconomic factors can significantly impact graduation rates. According to research, students from low-income families are 3.7 times as likely to drop out of school before they get a diploma.
Students facing financial hardship at home often need to work jobs to contribute to the family finances. Sometimes, this leaves little to no time for study or focus on academic performance. Housing and food insecurity are additional stressors that can make it difficult for students to succeed at school, affecting high school graduation rate.
What can we do?
- Ensure support is available at school
- Offer tutorial resources for free
- Provide food to low-income students
2. Academic challenges
Students who face academic challenges or struggle under the pressure to perform can become overwhelmed and stressed, one of the major reasons for low graduation rates.
Academic difficulties are often about more than just taking and doing well on tests. Students struggling in school might have learning challenges that make it difficult for them to grasp complex concepts, maintain a strong GPA, or meet the demands and expectations of the curriculum.
What can we do?
- Consider flexible grading systems
- Offer pass-fail options
- Leverage technology and digital tools that serve varied learning styles
- Offer tutoring
- Teach executive functioning skills
- Offer debate programs, which have been linked to a higher likelihood of students graduating in new research
3. Mental health issues
The most recent research on mental health and teens shows that more than 16% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 had 1 (or more) major depressive episodes within the last 12 months. Further, more than 2.7 million (11.5%) of youth are trying to navigate life with severe major depression.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that mental health issues — including depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation — are among the top concerns for adolescents today. Teens who struggle with mental health often underachieve in school. The good news is we know that timely intervention can lead to substantial, positive outcomes in addressing mental health as well as a low graduation rate.
What can we do?
- Offer support services for struggling students to improve student mental health
- Train staff, faculty, and administration to recognize signs of distress
- Ensure counseling professionals and therapy for students are available and accessible
“Poor mental health can significantly impact learning and academic performance by impairing concentration, memory, and motivation. It can lead to difficulties in focusing on tasks, managing stress, and engaging with educational materials, ultimately hindering a student's ability to excel in school.” - Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LPC, LMHC
4. Teen pregnancy
Overall, teen pregnancy rates have fallen in the last several decades — yet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) still estimates that the teen birth rate was more than 15% in 2020. Teen pregnancy can make staying in school feel impossible, especially if adequate support and services aren’t made available.
What can we do?
- Offer attention, support, and services to pregnant students or young mothers
- Create flexible schedules so students can balance education with parenting responsibilities
- Offer on-site daycare services
- Implement comprehensive sex education courses
5. Familial dynamics
Family dynamics and home life have always played a prominent role in how much success a child achieves. Family struggles can make academic performance a considerable burden in the life of high school students, and may even cause chronic absenteeism in students.
Some studies suggest that students living in high-conflict homes or environments have a significantly higher chance — ranging from 50 to 75% — of dropping out of high school.
What can we do?
- Offer counseling services or connect families with community resources
- Create mentoring programs that serve as additional support for struggling students
- Provide emotional support and teach coping skills for youth who may not have a strong familial support system
6. Lack of student engagement
Much research has been done on the link between student engagement and success in school. One study found that behaviorally engaged students have a better chance of graduating from high school and obtaining higher education. Additional studies support that behavioral disengagement — even as early as elementary and during the middle school years — can be predictive of high school dropout.
Being disconnected from academic achievement can stem from many things — including boredom, having trouble finding value in what’s being taught, or students feeling like they can’t relate to teachers or peers.
What can we do?
- Curriculum and lesson plans should be relevant to students’ lives to encourage engagement
- Emphasizing the teacher-student relationship can ensure students feel better understood by educators, which can enhance participation
- Implementing technology and tools that make learning fun can increase engagement
Invest in student mental health support with Talkspace
Keeping kids in school and helping them find success so they can graduate requires a multi-prong approach. Students need support, understanding, and resources in order for schools to increase graduation rates. We also need to recognize the role mental health plays in high school graduation rates. Whatever the reasons for low graduation rates, mental health support will help teens deal with any issues they face in life so they can make school, graduating, and, eventually, higher education a priority.
Talkspace is an online therapy platform perfectly designed for today’s busy students. With easy access to licensed and experienced therapists who understand teens’ unique challenges, Talkspace makes getting help easy, convenient, and affordable.
The stress of academics, personal or social issues, challenges of family dynamics, and more can take a toll on how well students do in school and the overall high school graduation rate. Investing in mental health support for teens will help individual students and promote higher graduation rates overall. Students who feel mentally, emotionally, and physically supported are more likely to stay academically engaged so they can graduate from high school.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to education, but understanding what causes low graduation rates can involve addressing the mental health component. Reach out to Talkspace today to learn more about how schools can offer every student the chance at success that they deserve.