High school completion is a significant milestone on the path to careers. However, many students, particularly post- pandemic, struggle to complete high school or with chronic absenteeism due to a variety of factors. According to the U.S. Department of Education, every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. That’s a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day. And noted in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S., which had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country, now ranks 22nd out of 27 developed countries. The effect that these outcomes have on our young people not only leads to lower earning potential, but in the U.S, high school dropouts commit about 75% of crimes.

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to a student’s struggle to complete high school. Here are some of the common reasons students may face challenges:

High School Completion Challenges Students with Learning Disabilities

Students with learning disabilities may find the path to college arduous due to difficulties in processing information, reading, writing, or math. They may face challenges in accessing appropriate educational resources, assistive technologies, or specialized instruction, leading to frustration and disengagement. Limited understanding and awareness of disabilities among educators and peers can contribute to a lack of inclusion and support, further impacting their academic success and overall well-being. Social and emotional factors, such as bullying, isolation, or low self-esteem, may also contribute to the decision to drop out. Additionally, systemic barriers, including limited post-secondary transition planning, lack of vocational training opportunities, and a perceived lack of career prospects, can discourage students with disabilities from continuing their education.

Mental Health Issues and High School Completion

Post-pandemic mental health issues have significantly impacted students of all ages and can limit a student’s ability to succeed academically. Among students who do not complete high school, over 20% prematurely end their education because of early-onset psychiatric disorders—with mood disorders being the most common. Anxiety, depression, or other conditions can affect a student’s concentration, motivation, and overall well-being. Untreated or unaddressed mental health issues can lead to feelings of isolation, hopelessness, or a sense of being overwhelmed, making it difficult for students to cope with the demands of school. The stigma surrounding mental health may also prevent students from seeking the support they need, further exacerbating their challenges.

The Struggle of Students from Low-Income Families

Students who struggle with attendance are also more likely to live in poverty… Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works worries the kids missing out on school are the same ones who need it the most. “Showing up to school makes sure that you have access to resources,” she says, “whether that’s food and nutrition, whether that’s after school and engaging learning experiences, whether that’s access to health care.” But financial constraints often force students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to prioritize immediate economic needs over continuing their education. They may need to work to support their families or themselves, making it difficult to balance work and school responsibilities. Inadequate support systems, limited access to extracurricular activities or college guidance, and a lack of role models or mentors can further diminish their motivation and belief in the value of a high school diploma.


Lack of Transportation

For many students, especially those from low-income or rural areas, accessing reliable transportation to and from school can be a challenge. Limited or unaffordable public transportation options, long distances to school, or insufficient transportation infrastructure can make it difficult for students to consistently attend classes. In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, outside Baltimore, chronic absenteeism has worsened over each of the last three years. “Transportation has been our number one issue,” says Ryan Voegtlin, director of student services for the large Maryland district. He says a bus driver shortage has made it hard to cover all the bus routes and guarantee transportation for every student. “That impacts a lot of our higher poverty areas where some of our parents don’t have as flexible of jobs, where they may not have their own transportation.”

Balancing Family Responsibilities with Education

Balancing family responsibilities like teen pregnancy or caring for younger siblings can significantly impact a student’s decision to drop out of high school due to the added responsibilities and challenges it presents. Teen caregivers often face difficulties in balancing the demands of parenting with the academic demands of high school. They may struggle to find adequate childcare, support, or resources, which can make attending classes consistently or completing assignments challenging. Financial pressures can also force students to seek employment or alternative educational paths to provide for their family.

Behavioral Issues Hampering High School Completion

Students with behavioral challenges may struggle with maintaining appropriate conduct, engaging in disruptive behaviors, or experiencing conflicts with peers and teachers. These issues can lead to disciplinary actions, suspensions, or a negative school environment that hampers their academic progress and emotional well-being. Persistent behavioral problems can result in feelings of frustration, alienation, or a sense of not fitting in, which may lead students to disengage from school and lose interest in pursuing their education.

It’s crucial to recognize that these categories are not mutually exclusive and many students may face multiple challenges simultaneously. Further, every student’s circumstances are unique, and the reasons for struggling to complete high school can greatly vary. As such, tailored interventions and support systems are critical in helping these students on their difficult path to college.

If you are interested in developing programs in your community to better support your students, please contact us. We’d love to talk about how we can help.