Economic Snapshot: The $363,000 High School Diploma

June is when many Wisconsin families celebrate high school graduations. As usual, Wisconsin ranks near the top nationally, with nearly a 90 percent high school graduation rate. Data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction indicates that in the 2005-2006 school year, many schools in the Capital Region graduated over 95 percent of their students. However, 260 students (14.4%) in the Madison School District dropped out of high school in that school year.
What is the cost of high school dropouts? The U.S. Census estimates that in 2005, high school graduates in Dane County earned $9,083 more than high school dropouts. The 263 Madison students who did not complete high school in 2006 will earn $94.5 million less ($363,320 less each) over a 40-year career. At the state level, estimated lost earnings over a lifetime are nearly $1.4 billion.
According to the U.S. Census, 31.6 percent of families in Wisconsin headed by a person without a high school diploma live in poverty. According to reports filed with the Department of Health and Human Services for the 2004-2005 fiscal year, 48 percent of the adults requiring Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in Wisconsin did not have a high school degree.
In addition to the $94.5 million in lost earnings, studies show that adults who lack high school degrees are at an elevated risk of incarceration and needing publicly financed medical care.
2005-2006 high school dropouts total lifetime earnings loss:
Madison Metropolitan School District — $95,553,160
Milwaukee School District — $590,775,360
Wisconsin total — $1,390,584,360
Source: WINSS, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2005 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Table: B2004, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, TANF, TAble 25, FY 04-05.
For more information, contact Professor Andy Lewis, Center for Community and Economic Development, U.W. Extension, at

2 thoughts on “Economic Snapshot: The $363,000 High School Diploma”

  1. It is obvious that a high school diploma is a key to future achievements. And it’s not only because of the society rules. Nowadays, we have so many technical tools that replace humans in everyday life so the number of positions for those who didn’t complete a high school is shortening all the time.

  2. A meanful HS diploma is an important key to a person’s future. But these numbers, as too many statistics, I find suspect. I mean, really, can we really know the economic cost of the lack of HS diploma to the nearest $10? (That’s what these numbers purport to say).
    But, implict here is also the assumption that having been granted a HS diploma means the person has acquired a HS education. I’m not buying that argument either.
    What is the cost (to the person and society) of not acquiring a HS education (regardless of how many diplomas one acquires)? I’d say far greater than the numbers reported here.

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