I know a young woman who is struggling to stay in high school. She is 16 years old, the mother of a one-year-old child and at risk of becoming one of the thousands of women who will drop out of high school this year.
When the news reported the findings of a study by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center that only 70% of American students graduate from high school, I wasn't surprised. I thought about the young woman I know and how hard it is for her to balance parenting and education. But the study's findings were front page news, inspiring speculation over why students would drop out rather than complete their schooling given the undeniable fact that making a living wage without a diploma is damn near impossible.
But there was another study released last year that provides insight into the reasons behind the high drop out rate and the costs young people pay for not finishing their education. When Girls Don't Graduate, We All Fail: A Call to Improve High School Graduation Rates for Girls, a study released in October of 2007 by the National Women's Law Center, found that girls are dropping out at nearly the same rate as boys but are paying a higher cost for that decision.
The study found that nearly half of the dropouts from the Class of 2007 were young women. In 2004, 25 percent of female students dropped out. Women of color reported even higher rates with 37 percent of Hispanic, 40 percent of Black and 50 percent of American Indian or Alaskan Native female students failing to graduate in four years.
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Young women that drop out of high school will earn significantly lower wages than male dropouts. These young women are at greater risk of being unemployed and being dependent on public programs. According to When Girls Don't Graduate the wage gap between men and women is highest among high school dropouts with young women earning 63 percent of male earnings.
These lower wages often translate into women without high school diplomas living below the federal poverty line on an average of $15,500 per year. These women are more likely to rely on Medicaid assistance and other public programs and they are particularly vulnerable to lack of access to healthcare.
When Girls Don't Graduate also addresses why young women are at risk for dropping out of high school, pointing to a survey sponsored by the Gates Foundation that reported contributing factors include a lack of family support, sexual harassment, bullying, and attitudes toward education. The Gates Foundation survey also found that the one-third of female dropouts reported that becoming a parent played a significant role in their failure to complete their high school education.
Clearly there is a need for schools to provide support for pregnant and parenting students. The Gates Foundation survey found that group was "most likely to say they would have worked harder if their schools had demanded more of them and provided the necessary support."
That is certainly the case for the young woman I know who is at risk of dropping out. She attends a public high school with daycare, but must provide for additional daycare outside of school in order to work. Her days are the very definition of struggle, filled with a never ending juggling act that includes school, parenting, work and navigating the public assistance system.
But this data also speaks to the desperate need for comprehensive sex education in all schools. Research shows that comprehensive sex education results in a multitude of positive outcomes including delaying becoming sexually active, reducing the frequency of sex and the number of partners, reducing instances of unprotected sex, and increasing the use of condoms and contraception when sexually active. Long-term outcomes include lower STI and pregnancy rates.
The numbers of young women who have dropped out are in need of affordable healthcare. Clinic defense is a defense of their right to screenings, testing and the variety of reproductive healthcare all people deserve in America.
The young woman I know will wake up tomorrow and begin her day making the choice of whether to push on or drop out. She will have a mentor to rely on for advice and encouragement and she has found an affordable clinic for birth control. But the choice will remain on the table until she walks across a stage and receives a diploma that will represent the difference between poverty and getting by.