How can parents prevent teenagers from dropping out of high school?

New UBC research finds that the importance parents place on education at home can play a major factor on teens’ decision to continue high school or drop out.

This key finding of a new UBC-Copenhagen Business School study raises new questions about how parents’ education levels influence high school dropout rates.

Previous studies have shown that children are far more likely to drop out of high school if their parents are also high school dropouts. For example, recent data suggests boys whose parents dropped out of high school have a 16 per cent chance of dropping out of school themselves. That’s compared to a dropout rate of less than one per cent for boys whose parents both have university degrees.

However, UBC economists Giovanni Gallipoli, David Green and Kelly Foley (who is now at the Copenhagen Business School) suggest that the family trait that matters most is not parental education, but how much parents value education.

To date, researchers have focused on two areas to explain dropout rates by family education levels: contrasts in cognitive (literacy, skills acquisition and problem-solving) and non-cognitive skills (self-esteem, motivation, efficacy, perseverance and initiative) of children.

The new study, released by the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network (CLSRN), quantifies the influence of these skills on the dropout decision, but also explores the role of parental valuations of education, which they define as the social and economic importance of education that parents express to their children.

The researchers find that children with identical skill levels may be more or less likely to complete school depending on their parents’ characteristics and inclinations. For example, children with median level skills are far less likely to drop out of high school if their parents place a high value on education.

Similarly, a boy whose parents never finished high school will be just as likely to drop out as another boy whose parents both have a Bachelors degree if those boys have similar skill levels and their parents place the same value on education.

“This suggests that the family trait that matters most is not parental education, but how much parents value education,” says Gallipoli. “This is important because it shows that kids can still thrive in school if parents make education a priority around the house. A parent’s education isn’t as important as we previously thought.”

According to the researchers, parents can express the importance of education in a variety of ways, including family discussions about educational opportunities and benefits, rewards for academic performance and college savings accounts. An ongoing study will help to determine which parental strategies are most effective.

The researchers argue that their results suggest dropout rates can be reduced in ways other than the slow, cross-generational process of raising parental education and early skill development, although parental valuations of education are also likely to be deeply ingrained and difficult to shift except over the very long run.

The authors also suggest governments can support parents by expanding mentoring programs and extending hours in school and publicly provided child care.

View the study here: clsrn.econ.ubc.ca

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