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A Scandal More Shameful than AIG and Just as Costly for Taxpayers

We should be treating America's dropout epidemic with the same measure of urgency, outrage and activism that has spurred us to tackle drunk driving, AIDS Awareness, and even climate change.
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They say there are two things you should never discuss on a first date or at a dinner party: religion and politics. But there has always been another subject that is so taboo that most people would rather arm wrestle over the other two than dare mention it.

That subject is class.

Americans have never liked discussing class status. Unlike our founding cousins over in England where your status is something bestowed upon you by birth, here we believe in a little something called the American Dream; the idea that any person regardless of race, religion or socio-economic background can become anything they want to be, including president.

But unfortunately that Dream is becoming increasingly out of reach for millions of Americans.

Though Madoff and the Wall Street meltdown have forced some of us to finally become more aware of the world beyond our comfortable middle and upper-middle class bubbles, another issue has been lurking for years that threatens to bring about even greater financial Armageddon for our country down the road: America's burgeoning dropout epidemic. Before you decide that this issue has nothing to do with you (and therefore decide to move on from this blog post) consider these facts for a moment:

• A 2008 study found that high school dropouts cost the American public more than $100 million a year.

• A 2009 study found that one high school dropout in Ohio will cost that state's taxpayers $200,000 from the time they dropout until they are 65 years of age.

• Every 29 seconds another American student becomes a dropout, meaning two (depending on how quickly you read) have dropped out since you began reading this post.

At a time when $100 million in bonuses for AIG execs was enough to drive many Americans to blind fury, it's amazing that so many Americans can sleep soundly at night as millions of our dollars essentially get up and walk out the door, every time another student gives up on his education and walks out of his classroom for the very last time.

So what's the solution? Like any complicated problem, solving it won't be easy but there are some steps we can all take. For one you can become a mentor. Unlike what it costs you when a kid drops out, this won't cost you anything but your time and mentoring is a proven dropout antidote.

But probably the most important step for all of us, is that we have to stop treating the issue like someone else's problem. You may not be a student, and you may not be the parent of a student who you consider at risk for dropping out, but if you are an American then this is an issue that affects you in some very real ways. According to a report conducted for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: "Four out of every 10 young adults (ages 16 - 24) lacking a high school diploma received some type of government assistance in 2001, and a dropout is more than eight times as likely to be in jail or prison as a person with at least a high school diploma." Or as The Las Vegas Sun put it more bluntly in their headline: "Dropouts more likely to become Criminals." So caring about this issue is not only a matter of protecting your pocketbook, but of protecting our communities.

For this reason we should be treating America's dropout epidemic with the same measure of urgency, outrage and activism that has spurred us to tackle, and bring about positive social change -- on a range of issues -- from drunk driving, to AIDS Awareness, and even climate change.

Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation has focused on a number of global issues that are literally matters of life and death, have recognized the magnitude of this issue and made it a focal point of their philanthropic work. Recently they teamed up with media giant Viacom for a new pro-social campaign titled "Get Schooled". Perhaps the most significant aspect of their partnership is it recognizes the reality that if you want to actually change something in society, you have to meet people where they are, and the media (even with all of the changes it's undergoing at the moment) remains the most effective way to do that. Much like Lifetime Television effectively used its many platforms, including programming, an online petition and public service announcements to help pass the Debbie Smith Act on behalf of survivors of sexual assault, Viacom is making a similar commitment to combat the dropout rate, or as the Gates Foundation calls it, the silent epidemic. This is huge, because it finally elevates the issue from one that's been largely invisible, to one that will hopefully become just as important to the average celebrity, and by extension the average American, as the environment has become.

Remember, there was a time not too long ago when the average person thought climate change was some sort of college meteorology course, but former Vice-president Gore, helped in large part by his media megaphone -- a little film called An Inconvenient Truth -- helped change all of that. Hopefully the Get Schooled campaign and its various celebrity ambassadors can lead to similar enlightenment on this silent epidemic. (One celebrity spokesperson, actor Christian Slater, has already begun to break the silence on the issue, recently disclosing that he was a high school dropout before being motivated by his children to earn his GED.)

While speaking at a recent conference at Harvard Business School I was approached by a woman who said that she believed it would be impossible for our country to "produce another Barack Obama," someone from a socio-economically disadvantaged background who could rise to become president. From her vantage point there are simply too many obstacles today that render that American Dream no longer within reach.

Let's all work together to prove her wrong, and ending the silence around this epidemic is a good start.

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