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The benefits of a high school degree


Statistics from a 2012 Frontline PBS article show that if you drop out of high school chances are that annually you will make a full $10,386 less than someone who graduates.

As someone who spends fifty hours a week in a nonprofit aimed at dropout prevention, I wanted to use this information to motivate my students to stay in high school. This year I have seen too many intelligent, driven and hard-working students stop showing up to school due to outside circumstances. Sometimes they didn’t have another choice but to drop out of school, but sometimes they did. I have had students leave school to work seven days a week, to take care of their sick parents, or to babysit their siblings. Sometimes they simply dropped out because they felt school wasn’t for them. The reasons may vary, but the result is still the same. One day there are 32 students sitting in math class, the next there are 31. As a tutor and mentor my ability to control and help what situations these students deal with only goes as far as the walls of the high school I spend my days at.

I tried to find a way to turn this statistical information about drop outs into a lesson on budgeting I could share with my students. The bottom line I wanted to get across was simple: stay in high school and get your diploma, because that will lead you to success. Maybe, just maybe, one of my students would hear something from this lesson that could motivate them to stick out the four years of high school.

I had the students that I tutor write $10,386 on top of a piece of paper during the beginning of our tutoring session. They had no idea why, and I dodged the questions for a good two minutes before we got back to it. We did a quick minute math activity, went over some topics from class and then went back to the number.

I told the students to pretend I had given them that amount of money, and asked them to budget out what they would do with it. Using their calculators, they budgeted out how much they thought things would cost. It is funny how ‘adult’ my students can be at times. At sixteen years old, they have a realistic concept of how much food and household items cost. In fact, sometimes they are the ones paying the bills and grocery shopping for their households.

The responses I got from my students varied. Some students wanted to spend $500 on Takis and Hot Cheetos, $400 on new Jordans or clothes, $200 on jewelry, or $300 on video games. Others wanted to spend it on a new truck, some talked about putting a down payment on a house, and some even thought very carefully about making others a priority before spending the money on themselves.

“I’m gonna give most of it to my mom Miss. She works really hard so we can get the things we need, and I would give her that money so we could get out of some of the debt we’re in.”

“I would buy my mom a nice necklace. She deserves that.”

“I would pay off my IOU’s. I hate owing people money.”

“Any clothing I buy for myself I’d buy for my sister. If I’m looking good she’s gotta look good too.”

After the budgets were complete I had them read the statistic of high school drop outs aloud: “The average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of $20,241, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate.”

Most of the students were shocked at this statistic. Some responding immediately with “What, Miss, I’m never dropping out,” or “Wow, I should really graduate.” I asked them if they knew people who dropped out of high school, and how it had affected them. The conversations we had were honest and real. My students have brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, mothers and fathers who have dropped out of high school. They themselves are at a huge risk for dropping out. We talked about the options they would have if they dropped out, and how sometimes it could lead to crime and jail time. How illegal activity can make you money fast, but it wasn’t worth the consequences. We talked about the difficulty of getting a good job without a high school degree.

Did I change the way my students thought about graduation? Did I give them useful information? I may never know the answer to that question. I may have been the first person to tell them the economic statistics of dropping out, or I may have been the twentieth. I may have made them think about the benefits of a high school degree for a minute, or maybe for a couple days.

I don’t know if all sixteen of my focus list students will graduate. My time with City Year ends when the school year does in June. But what I do know is that they all deserve to. They work hard and they are intelligent. Without their degrees they will not have the opportunities they should.

This lesson was a discussion about the reality of the world today. The conversations that we had helped them realize that they deserve to make enough money to support themselves and their future families, and that maybe walking across the stage two years from now is the best path to do so. Their socioeconomic status, lack of resources and years of oppression are stacked against these kids. City Year AmeriCorps members are here to support them every day. It is not easy for these students to stay in school and earn their degree. However, it is possible. I hope every one of these students makes that extra $10,386 every year.

Shannon Porter is from Marshfield, MA and serves as a first year AmeriCorps member at Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, Texas. She serves because she believes that where you are born should not determine what you can do with your life.

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