Dropping Out: Does Location Matter?

Jeff Jordan, University of Georgia


The purpose of this paper is to:

  • Explore the determinants of dropping out.
  • Examine whether differences in graduation rates and basic determinants have changed since the 1980’s.

Our Approach

We use recent and past national representative data sets to provide an in depth analysis of high school dropout rates in the U.S.

Specifically we:

  1. Use recent, geo-coded nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1997 (NLSY97)
  2. Use geo-coded household level data from a similar cohort of youth as the NLSY97 but who attended high school in the late 70’s and early 80’s (NLSY79) to examine whether the graduation rates and determinants have changed over the last 30 years.


NLSY79: 12,686 young men and women who were 14-22 years old when first surveyed in 1979, and surveyed annually through 1994 (biannually since).

NLSY97: 9,000 youths, 12-16 years old by 1997.

Data Grouping

Based on the Beal Codes we grouped individuals in four categories: those living in:

cities (zone 1) suburban/metro area (Zone 2) adjacent non-metro (Zone 3) remote non-metro (Zone 4).

High School Graduation Rates (%)


All      Zone 1   Zone 2   Zone 3   Zone 4

80.3    80.1       81.1        80.1        78.6


77.1    76.9       77.3        77.1        77.1

Determinants of Graduation

Testing for:

  1. Individual and family characteristics (race, gender, income, “hard times”, net worth, household size and composition, relation of youth to adults in house, education of parents, poverty ration, attending public school).
  2. Peer characteristics:
    • Percent of peers that are part of a gang
    • Do drugs
    • Skip class
    • Want to attend college
  3. Geographic context:
    • Total population
    • Crime rates
    • Median family income
    • Racial composition
    • Unemployment
    • Employment by sector


  1. High School dropout rates are similar throughout the urban-rural continuum.
  2. Overall, dropout rates are three percentage points higher in the 2000s than in the 1980s across all locations.
  3. The determinants of dropping out are also similar across the urban-rural continuum.
  4. Family level characteristics are far more predictive of dropping out than geographic attributes and appear to operate in similar ways across locations.

These determinants are gender, race (in some cases), family assets, the presence of both biological parents, maternal attributes, and peer characteristics.

  1. The biggest exception, after adding all control variables, is that Black and Hispanic males are at an advantage in the most rural areas in terms of graduating.
  2. Females are more likely to graduate than males, holding all other variables constant.
  3. Differences in graduation rates among races mostly disappear when peer and some location attributes are included.
  4. Graduation rates for Black students have declined in the 2000s compared to the 1980s.
  5. The difference in graduation rates between public and private schools in the 1980s have disappeared in the 2000s.
  6. Dropout prevention policies need to focus on the effect of different family arrangements, poverty, and peer surroundings, regardless of location.