High school dropouts are less likely to be active labor force participants and are more likely to be unemployed than their more educated counterparts.The current unemployment rate for high school dropouts is about 56 percent greater than that for high school completers. Lifetime earnings for this group are estimated to be $260,000 less than those for high school graduates. Female dropouts are much more likely to become single mothers and consequently be more likely to have an income under the poverty threshold or live on welfare. High school dropouts make up 68 percent of the nation's prison population. Nearly 37% of dropouts live in poor/near poor families. Additionally, high school dropouts have a life expectancy that is 3-5 years shorter than high school graduates.

A number high school dropouts however became successful. Walt Disney was an American business magnate, cartoonist, and filmmaker who dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen in hopes of joining the army. Bobby Fischer was an American chess prodigy, grandmaster, and the eleventh World Chess Champion who also dropped out of high school when he turned age sixteen and later explained "You don't learn anything in school". Glen L Roberts after a career of trying to expose government privacy abuses, left the United States, renounced his citizenship and became one of the few former Americans to voluntarily become stateless. He had dropped out of high school in 10th grade.

The problems created at an individual level due to the lack of a high school diploma or GED affect society as a whole. Those who cannot find jobs cannot pay taxes, resulting in a loss of revenue for the government. For each cohort of 18-year-olds who never complete high school, the US loses $192 billion in income and tax revenue. Moretti estimates that by increasing the high school completion rate of males by one percent, the US could save up to $1.4 billion annually in reduced costs from crime. A substantial amount of taxpayer money goes toward maintaining the prisons. And, in 2004, each high school dropout was responsible for nearly $100,000 in health-related losses. Because of these factors, an average high school dropout will cost the government over $292,000.

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