Staying in School is Not as Crucial As You Might Think

School is optional. That's just true. School is one option for learning, one option for preparation for a successful future, one place to spend your childhood and adolescence, one way to prepare for a successful future. School is one option. It's not the only option.

Some young people might enjoy school, thrive in a school environment. That's wonderful.

Others do not, and for them we should dispense with the dogma about staying in school and instead support other choices.

We hear so much about the importance of staying in school, but a quick look at the numbers shows us that it's not the issue we might think it is. Nationwide, about 25 percent of young people "drop out" of school. Of those, about half go on to get a GED.

A person without a GED or any advanced degrees can expect to earn an average of $24,500 per year. Not very much, to be sure. Leaving school and not pursuing further training of any kind is a poor financial decision. About 12 percent of Americans find themselves in this situation.

The other 13 percent of people who leave school without a diploma go on to take and pass the GED or other high school equivalency exam. If they stop their studies there, they can expect to earn an average of $31,000 per year. Their peers with high school diplomas earn an average of $33,000 per year.

$33,000 is more than $31,000, yes. I found this relatively small difference surprising, however. From all the hubbub about staying in school, I would have guessed the difference would be much greater, as if high school graduates are sure to become CEO's and drop outs will inevitably become destitute. Nope. $2000/year difference, on average.

In fact, the greatest indicator of a person's future financial success is the financial success of their parents. Of course, some people will surpass their parents in income, and others will earn less, but most people will do about the same, with or without degrees from public school, private school, homeschooling, or without any formal education at all.

According to a study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, 70 percent of those born into a low income bracket will also die there, and just 4 percent of those born poor ever become wealthy. This is not a study about high school drop outs, this is representing all Americans. If you are born poor in our country you have just a 30 percent chance of making it out of poverty, high school diploma or not.

An imagined goal of public school is to help people transcend their environments, to offer access to success beyond that achieved by their parents. It's a lovely idea. But in fact, very few achieve transcendence through schooling. Very few. Yet when working class people remain in the class they were born into, we see that as both a failure of school and a failure of the individual. In fact it is the norm.

Most egregiously, when a person leaves that system, tries to leave their fate, we see that not as a sign of strength, or hope, or initiative; we see it as ultimate failure.

Our pervasive national feeling on this issue is surprising in some ways. In many other dynamics, we support change. When people are in abusive relationships, we hope they will walk away. When a person sees that she is wasting her time, we encourage her to start over and try a new approach. When a person is in a dead-end job, we hope he will change careers or create a new opportunity for himself. When business partners have "creative differences," we agree they should separate.

There is no single, perfect way to learn. There is no environment that is ideal for every learner. School is one very popular choice, but it is by no means the only one.

Leaving school is an acknowledgment of a dynamic that isn't working and a movement toward change. It's not an end, it's a beginning. Let's stop shaming people who choose to walk away from situations that are not working for them. Instead, let's support them with alternatives.