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Dollars and Sense

A TC Study ask: Would the benefits of getting more young black men to graduate from high school outweigh the costs?

Dollars and Sense

A TC study asks: Would the benefits of getting more young black men to graduate from high school outweigh the costs?

Perly Solomon is a 17-year-old senior at the School for Excellence, a small arts-themed high school in the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx. A lanky young man with a gentle manner and a quick smile, he ranks fourth in his class, is the starting shooting guard on a school basketball team that last year lost the B division city championship by a single basket, and has been accepted at several colleges for the fall. He wants to study filmmaking and business.

"I think Perly will make it, wherever he goes," says Wade Fuller, the school's principal. All of which makes Solomon, who is African American, a distinct anomaly. The high school graduation rate for black males is estimated at about 48 percent (it's 83 percent for white males), and the prognosis for those who drop out is grim. The lifetime probability that a black man will enter the state or federal prison system at some point in his life is one in three-and the incarceration rates for those who drop out of high school range from 3.4 to 8 percent higher. Only 34 percent of black male high school dropouts are employed, while 47 percent simply aren't counted among the labor force-that is, they're not working and they're not looking for a job. To make matters worse, the average earnings for high school dropouts in general have declined from $35,000 in 1971 (in current dollars) to $24,000 in 2002, reflecting both a decreased demand for U.S.-based manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs, and an increased supply of cheap immigrant labor.

Four years ago, Solomon, too, seemed headed down the path toward dropping out. Though clearly intelligent, he got in fights, hung out with friends who robbed and took drugs, and was indifferent toward school. In short, he was no different from a lot of other kids at what was then Morris High School-one of the city's worst and roughest schools, in a bleak neighborhood dominated by the Bloods and other gangs.

Then something changed. Morris High School became the first large New York City school to be divided up into smaller, themed schools. Fuller, who had been the school's assistant principal, was named to lead the School for Excellence, and he was able to take Solomon and some of his other former students with him. The school was paired with an outside partner, the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA), which prepares underserved, at-risk students for college.

"We target schools where more than half the students are low-achieving," says ISA President and CEO Gerry House, former superintendent of schools in Memphis, Tennessee. "We work with the principal and faculty to develop what we call ?a culture of college,' and because we believe that's unlikely to happen in large, impersonal settings, we work exclusively in small schools or large ones that have been converted into smaller learning communities."

ISA, which is funded by the philanthropist Gerry Leeds, has provided money for extra staff positions at the School for Excellence and made other monetary contributions. But its most important focus, House says, is to ensure that "every adult in school acts like a counselor-that they understand the kids not just as learners, but as people with aspirations and fears, whom they must build trust with and make feel safe-physically and emotionally."

Perly Solomon confirms that this is real. "The best thing this school has done for me," he says, "is be like my second family."

What if the story of Perly Solomon could somehow become the rule rather the exception? What if interventions like the School for Excellence and ISA were instituted on a national scale, and young black men began graduating from high school at the same rate as their white peers? Obviously that would be a great thing for the new graduates themselves-but what would be the economic impact on society? The costs would clearly be huge-but would the economic benefits outweigh them?

Those are precisely the questions that will be asked in a new study led by TC's Henry Levin, William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, and Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE). The study is also funded by Leeds and his wife, Lilo, who are dedicated to creating equal educational opportunities and outcomes for poor and minority students.

"It's not enough, in this day and age, to tell people that helping underserved kids is the morally right thing to do," says Levin. "You've got to show them what works-successes like ISA-and then you have to show them the dollar value of those successes. And that's what we hope to do."

As part of the study, Levin and his fellow researchers-Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton economist; Clive Belfield, of Queens College, who is associate director of NCSPE; and Peter Muennig, of the Columbia School of Public Health-are searching the literature for interventions that work. "We're not going to end up saying, ?ISA is the only answer,'" Levin says. "Instead, we'll be trying to identify features that effective programs have in common." Levin and his colleagues are all trained economists who have mined this kind of territory before. Levin himself did a national study in 1972 that the Select Senate Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity, headed by Senator Walter Mondale, used to generate federal legislation.

The team will estimate both the costs of scaling up such interventions nationwide and the economic benefits of achieving higher graduation rates. The latter are expected to come primarily from reduced costs-in the criminal justice system, the public health system and public assistance, as well as higher tax revenues and productivity.

Are the results a foregone conclusion?

"We'll produce a range of cost estimates-high, middle and low-because we want people to look at this and think, ?They have followed reasonable procedure,'" Levin says.

"If we find that the middle range of costs is only equal to the benefits, well, that's not a very compelling case for increased investment on economic grounds. However, if we find that the benefits of intervening and boosting the graduation rate are five times or even a higher multiple of the expected middle level of costs-that would be big. In that case, even doubling investment in the education of the young would still save money for society in the long run."

Perly Solomon, for one, needs no convincing. "Even my friends who have dropped out and are doing bad stuff, they tell me to go to college and stick with it, no matter what." Will he go to school here in the city, or out of state? "I went away to basketball camp for two weeks once, and that felt like a really long time," he says, uncertainly. "But my friends say get out of here and don't come back, because there's nothing here for me."

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