Skip Header Navigation

Skip Breadcrumb Links  
About RBC > Media Newsroom > Speeches > It Doesn't Pay: The economic impact of dropping out of high school

It Doesn't Pay: The economic impact of dropping out of high school

Printer-friendly format (opens new window)

Charlie Coffey, O.C.
Executive Vice President
Government Affairs & Business Development
RBC Financial Group
National Dialogue on Students at Risk Conference
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
Vancouver, British Columbia

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Thank you Niki…I'm pleased to join you, my panel colleagues and the champions of youth in this room for a discussion about the economic, social and health impacts of dropping out of high school. For a day and a half now, you've engaged in students at risk dialogue with public officials, community leaders, health experts, academics, program directors and the impressive list goes on…from Sister Bernadette O'Reilly and the Rossbrook House story in Winnipeg, to Dr. Carl Porter and the early child development link, not to mention, Norman Rowen and the Pathways to Education story in Regent Park, Toronto. I also want to thank Veronica Lacey (and The Learning Partnership) for inviting me to participate in this important and timely forum - a forum which is helping to connect the entire country on this national and international issue.

I remember well when "the plight of students at risk in Canada" was the subject of a National Roundtable involving senior policy decision makers from across Canada on January 26, 2005. The day culminated in a keynote dinner address by Dr. Douglas Willms, Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick. And I also remember Veronica's comments following the event: "It is a moral, social and economic imperative to reduce the gap between students who achieve and those who fail. As the issue is urgent and complex, the dialogue and responsibility for the solution must be embraced with pan-Canadian resolve and action." So here we are once again - and I think it's safe to say that we hear the call to action.

It's been said that, "the capacity to learn is our most abundant and precious resource." Education is the foundation of Canada's economic well-being and the prerequisite to sustaining our quality of life. Quite simply, dropping out of high school doesn't pay.

Michael Bloom, Director of Education and Learning, the Conference Board of Canada sums it up well: "Knowledge is the currency of our economy and learning is a key to maintaining productivity, competitiveness and prosperity. By stimulating innovation in public education and learning systems, Canadians will become more highly skilled, creative and adaptable-qualities leading to an innovative society and a better workforce." Again, dropping out of high school simply doesn't pay.

So let's talk about the economic impact of students dropping out of high school - and some ideas to help address this issue. At the same time, it's useful to keep in mind that the social and health impacts are all interconnected. To get us started, it's helpful to recap the landscape:

  • "Canada's high school dropout rate has declined significantly since the early 1990s, especially in the Atlantic provinces", according to a December 2005 Statistics Canada report, which acknowledges support from Dr. Cappon's group, the Canadian Council on Learning.

  • "During the 1990/91 school year, one out of every six young people (in the age group of 20 to 24), or 16.7%, was neither attending school, nor had a high school diploma. By 2004/05, this rate had slipped to 9.8%."

  • "Outside of Canada's largest communities, the drop-out rate in the 2004-2005 school year was 16.4%, almost double the rate (9.2%) within Census Metropolitan Areas."

  • "Dropout rates also remain substantially higher among the Aboriginal population. Despite significant gains in the last decade, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth has widened."

  • "Young men were less likely to be engaged in school than young women and were more likely to report wanting to work/earn money as a reason for dropping out of high school. 15.9% of female drop-outs left school because they were pregnant or they needed to tend to their child."

"The evidence also suggests that potential employers are less likely to hire high school dropouts. The unemployment rate among dropouts aged 20 to 24 in 2004/05 was 19.4%, double that for all others in this age group, a reality that will be reflected in earnings and longer term prospects." In other words, dropping out of high school simply doesn't pay!

"The labour market in Canada rewards those with education." High school drop-outs have a harder time finding work than others who follow secondary school through to completion and perhaps continue in the education system. To quote from one of the Canadian Council on Learning pieces, Lessons in Learning: "The good news is that high school dropout rates have been declining steadily over the past decade. The bad news is that among certain sub groups - rural and Aboriginal students in particular - the rates are well above the national average."

"The substantial decline in the dropout rate over the past decade suggests that many of the programs put in place to encourage young people to stay in school until they graduate (including second chance programs) are meeting with success." Yet despite the progress, there remain over 200,000 young Canadians who can be called dropouts. "This is even more concerning, given the evidence that some young dropouts do reasonably well in school in terms of academic performance."

It's been accepted for many years now that students who don't complete high school, face many more challenges later in life, than students who do. A 2005 report from the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, entitled "One-Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities", alerts readers that not enough is being done to curtail rising dropout rates and their economic costs.

"This is a story of losing ground," writes author Paul Barton. "At the same time that the dropout rate is increasing and out-of-school education and training opportunities are dwindling, the economic status of young dropouts has been in a free fall since the late 1970s. Employment and earnings prospects have declined and even for those who work full time, earnings have dropped steadily to averages around the poverty line for a family with children."

Barton goes on to say: "Almost 45 years ago, James Conant, former president of Harvard, said that the dropout problem was 'social dynamite.' The explosion has occurred, and will continue to occur. This is seen in growing prison populations and increasing welfare costs; in ever lower wages; in a limited labor supply for, we are told, an economy with an increasing appetite for educated workers; and in the likelihood of raising a new generation with dim prospects of doing better - and perhaps of doing worse." Dropping out of high school simply doesn't pay!

Barton paints a grim picture for the United States but also adds: "The nation has proven it can focus on improving education achievement while students are in school…in this there is a promise that it can also give such focused attention to keeping them in school until graduation." Canada can think and do likewise - it's our call to action.

Not surprisingly, "a large and growing body of research findings suggest the more education, the better, especially when it comes to making a smooth transition into the workforce. The consequences of dropping out can be great, and there are many concrete things that schools, families (and yes business), can do to help students stay in school" - to help our future workforce become leaders in the new economy.

The bottom line is the bottom line. "Having a high school education and diploma, not only can provide entry to postsecondary education (college or university), it sends a strong signal to prospective employers. In 2004, the unemployment rate among people aged 25 to 44 who did not have a high school diploma was 12.2%, while for those whose highest level of education was high school, it was much lower, at 6.8%. Moving to higher levels of education, the unemployment rate continues to drop, although not to the same extent."

It bears repeating…dropping out of high school simply doesn't pay!

Canada is obviously moving in the right direction - we've made progress with our dropout rate - however this is no time to be complacent, as there's much work to get done. Besides, progress must be nurtured to continue. The dropout statistics suggest that future success in prevention will depend on our ability to reach out to particular sub-groups that are experiencing above average dropout rates - young males, young mothers, students in rural areas and aboriginal students.

We must focus on aboriginal students - on community-based learning, on employment and on language and culture. "The aboriginal population is the fastest growing segment of Canada's workforce. More than half of this population is under 25. About 400,000 aboriginal young people are poised to enter the job market over the next 20 years." Promising job opportunities and careers will encourage Aboriginal students to stay in school and help them make the transition from school to work. RBC's Aboriginal Stay in School Program is one example of many in this room, in Vancouver, in British Columbia and across Canada…we need to push the envelope on this "students at risk" priority.

The same goes for male students, young mothers and students in rural areas. As the recent Canadian Council for Learning article and other sources suggest: rural schools may want to partner with local businesses to create stay-in-school or school-to-work initiatives. "Male students may be more inclined to stay in school if they can see a direct connection between schooling and near-term employment opportunities. School-to-work programs including co-operative education and apprenticeships are extremely valuable in this regard. And programs that enable young women who become pregnant to continue their education while caring for their children remain important. Affordable, high-quality child care is a critical component of any such program." Again, dropping out of high school simply doesn't pay!

I also want to weave in three more noteworthy and interrelated elements to our dropping out of high school doesn't pay economic dialogue - they include: early child development, literacy and what I refer to as ego-strength:

  1. Early child development. According to the 2003 Business Roundtable/Corporate Voices for Working Families Joint Statement: Early Childhood Education - A Call to Action from the Business Community: "High-quality early childhood education produces "long-term positive outcomes and cost-savings that include improved school performance, reduced special education placement, lower school dropout rates, and increased lifelong earning potential. Not only does high-quality early childhood education make a difference for children, it matters to their employed parents. Employers increasingly find that the availability of good early childhood programs is critical to the recruitment and retention of parent employees."

  2. Literacy. Human Resources Development Canada and Statistics Canada reports reveal that: "Young teenagers who began high school with weaker literacy skills were more likely to drop out before they reached Grade 12." There's more…"A major contributor to economic growth consists of the literacy skills of a country's population, broadly defined to include prose, document and quantitative literacy. In other words, when literacy skills are in high demand, individuals who possess strong literacy skills are more successful in the labour market than individuals whose literacy skills are weaker."

  3. Ego-strength. Here's an excerpt of an article from called The secret heart of learning - it goes like this: "Henry Ford summarized part of the equation many years ago: 'If you think you can, or think you can't, you're right.' Others have said: 'We are what we think we are. We become what we think we'll become.' And we're not talking about the touchy, feely, all-you-have-to-do-is-think-and-you'll-grow-rich brand of fantasy. In our view, all self-esteem has to be firmly grounded in positive achievement. And real achievement is grounded in self-esteem. You have to achieve something specific to achieve full potential. 'Feeling good about yourself' is not enough, although it's part of the secret. You also have to ground your feelings in something you can do well - math, science, cooking, reading, karate, sport, singing, dancing - whatever." As many might say, this is ego-strength or resiliency at play. And let's not kid ourselves - ego-strength is part of the equation - ego-strength does impact the economic, health and social dimensions of the student population and especially students at risk. It's the right encouragement behaviour that parents, teachers and employers must foster with high school students - and I dare say throughout the cycle of life.

For many years, people here today (and countless others), have made a major and collective contribution to early child development, literacy, ego-strength and supporting stay in school initiatives. We're often more successful when creating strong partnerships among schools, businesses, governments and communities - by adopting a holistic approach. You're assuming a leadership role by encouraging educators, business colleagues, not to mention community administrators to do what most of you are already doing. Share best practices and show up at best practices - find out what's going on in your community and communities from coast to coast. Talk to students, invite business/educator contacts to workplaces, schools and symposiums and connect decision-makers/influencers to students so they can listen to one another directly.

In his presentation, "Wait to Fail" Dr. Douglas Willms (who I mentioned at the start of my remarks) makes several thought-provoking observations, including one about redefining school readiness. He says: "Learning readiness is not a characteristic of a child. All children are ready to learn. Instead, think about learning readiness as a characteristic of a school. Is a school ready to meet the learning needs of the children it serves?" His comments made me reflect on a similar and perhaps related question: if we presume that most high school students are ready to learn at work, is a business ready to meet the learning needs of its student employees - do we make our opportunities and environments enticing enough so that they prefer to finish high school first and even go beyond?

As Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty maintains: "Building a well-educated and highly skilled workforce is the most important thing we can do to ensure our future prosperity…helping our students succeed is the most important thing we can do to help them achieve their full potential." In this day and age, it may be hard to find an issue that enjoys unanimous political agreement, but I'll go out on a limb here and suggest every Premier in Canada would share this perspective.

Connecting what students learn in the classroom and how they apply this learning in the workplace makes good economic sense. Providing both students and educators with more opportunities to discover and experience the work environment also makes good economic sense. Student participation in the workplace, chatting with young people about their futures and nurturing positive attitudes about work and school, also makes good economic sense for RBC - and for other corporations/businesses too.

In short, the economic impact of students dropping out of high school is enormous. High school students represent a huge pool of talent - a huge pool of largely untapped talent that's getting ready to be engaged in business, in public service and in communities - to be contributors to a robust economy. We can help students get ready in school - to value school. And we can help students get ready for the workplace - to value the workplace. This is not an option, this is an imperative - the intrinsic link between education and economic prosperity is too significant to ignore.

In order for learning to become a way of life, increasing educational opportunities must become the shared goals of stakeholders - from students and teachers, to parents and grandparents, to business people and volunteers. As a father and businessman, I'm strongly convinced that our children and students deserve nothing less. As such, I'll close by saying it one more time for good measure: dropping out of high school simply doesn't pay!

Thank you.