Disentangling the Relationship Between Drug Use and Dropout Rates

Teens who drop out of high school are more likely to have substance use issues than those who stay in high school until graduation. However, the exact relationship between drug use and dropout rates is unclear. Some believe that drug use is a symptom of other issues, such as domestic abuse, neglect, maltreatment, or other childhood adversities. The subsequent drug use then affects academic performance, which decreases self-esteem and worth, making at-risk teens more susceptible to dropping out. Others believe that childhood problems themselves predispose children for early discontinuation of higher learning and that any drug use would not increase or decrease the odds of a child dropping out of high school. To clarify this phenomenon, Joseph Gasper, Ph.D., a Research Associate at Westat in Rockville, Maryland, conducted a study on 11,395 students who were part of the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS). The participants were examined for academic performance, drug use, and childhood adversity in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.

Gasper found that the participants who had poorer grades, engaged in disruptive and risky behavior, and smoked cigarettes in 8th grade were more likely to use illegal drugs in the 10th grade than those who did not engage in any of those negative behaviors. Additionally, removing all other risk factors, the students who dropped out were 10% more likely to have used cannabis in the month prior than those who did not drop out. High school dropouts are at increased risk for several negative life consequences, including lower earnings, unemployment, incarceration, early pregnancy, public assistance reliance, and even shorter life expectancy than those who receive a high school diploma. The overall impact of not receiving a high school diploma is significant. “For these reasons, it may be prudent for dropout prevention efforts to focus on early interventions in middle and even elementary school,” said Gasper. He believes that the findings of his study will help clinicians and educational professionals better identify those individuals at risk for dropping out. He added, “Such interventions should be aimed at interrupting or preventing the downward cycle of maladaptation to failure that culminates in disengagement, problem behaviors, drug use, and eventually, dropping out.”

Gasper, J. Revisiting the Relationship Between Adolescent Drug Use and High School Dropout. Journal of Drug Issues 41.1 (2011): 587-618. Print.

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The preceding article summarizes research or news from periodicals or related source material in the fields of mental health and psychology. GoodTherapy.org did not participate in or condone any studies, or conclusions thereof, that may have been cited. Any views or opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Darius

    February 14th, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    Think that it is a little closd minded to automaticallly assume that one is going to have a drug problem just because they drop out of high school and vice versa.

    There are a lot of people in this world who don’t have the school smarts but have managed to make something out of their lives.

    I know that we don’t think of this as the norm but it can happen and to write someone off just because they don’t possess a certain education level is denying some really great people the opportunities that they deserve.

  • Noelle

    February 15th, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    I know that this is not what you meant Darius, but to me it almost sounds like you are ok with kids dropping out of school, that they can still become something without their education. Is this really the kind of message that we want to project to our kids? I don’t want my kids hearing that because I think we all know that those kinds of success stories without the right training and education are very few and far between. Add to that the stress that financial difficulties can bring and the reality that many of these same people turn to alcohol and drugs for solace and escape, well I don’t want my family to have to have any part of that.

  • BG

    February 15th, 2012 at 11:58 PM

    There’s always going to be youngsters using drugs,no doubt.But we should look at why they are using them.is it problems at home,is it bullying or other problems at school,or is it relationship-related?
    Once we check that kind of data we can address those issues by offering them alternatives and outlets to cope with all of those problems.Drug use could then decrease and so will the drop out rates.


    February 16th, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    A close relationship does exist but studying it is neither easy nor is the solving.The drug problem is not going away anytime sooner.What we must concentrate upon is on better home and family conditions,lesser broken homes and therefore lesser youngsters turning to drugs to survive it all.

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