It doesn't matter how good a school is if students don't show up to class.
In 2012, about 7.5 million students were chronically absent from schools nationwide. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, truancy, defined as unexcused absence from school, is a growing problem.
The consequences of truancy aren't limited to a few missed lessons, either—there is a litany of long-term side effects that impact not just the children, but their communities and the nation's economic health as a whole.
“We all as a society have a responsibility to own our role and our potential to improve these numbers.”—California Attorney General Kamala Harris
The children who are most likely to miss class are perhaps the children who need it most. Studies suggest that students of color, who make up a growing share of the nation's students, and those living in poverty are more likely to be absent. These children are less likely to have access to educational resources outside of the classroom and at home. They have higher dropout rates and are less likely to go to college and to be employed as adults. These students are also more likely to end up in prison.
As California Attorney General Kamala Harris said during a press call to discuss the report Tuesday, "This issue of truancy is a public safety issue, it is an economic issue, and I think we can solve it."
Harris commissioned a study in the mid-2000s that found that nearly 85 percent of elementary school students in her state who missed at least 10 percent of the school year unexcused came from low-income families. Her team's research also suggested that nearly 4 in 10 African-American students sampled were truant.
Up until the 1960s and '70s, truancy cases were handled by the juvenile justice system. Now, there is more discretion, and students and their families can be enrolled in mentoring programs or parenting classes. Still, CAP notes that between 1995 and 2007, the number of petitioned truancy cases tried in courts jumped from 34,600 to 65,000.
Harris, CAP, and other advocacy groups say more needs to be done to get kids back to school, but it will take an acknowledgement that the students of today are a different set than the students of a generation ago.
In 2014, students of color made up the majority of public-school students for the first time. If the risk of truancy is greater for these students, and the number of these students is growing, "it is even more important for leaders to take action now, as the cost of truancy is simply too high," the report argues.
Why should you care?
As authors Farah Ahmad and Tiffany Miller note in the report, "Today's students will be tomorrow's workers." Truant children are more likely to have low earnings as adults and less stable career paths, meaning they are less likely to contribute meaningfully to the nation's overall economy.
The Alliance for Excellent Education suggests that if half of dropouts in the Class of 2010 had graduated, the nation would have seen an additional $7.6 billion in earnings, $713 million in tax revenue in an average year, and $9.6 billion in economic growth by the time these students hit the middle of their careers.
Truant children are more likely to have low earnings as adults and less stable career paths, meaning they are less likely to contribute meaningfully to the nation’s overall economy.
The benefits of just getting a kid into a classroom could be huge.
"Some researchers posit that if students who live in high-poverty neighborhoods attended school every day with no other changes being made, students would experience increased rates of academic achievement, high school completion, post-secondary education attainment, and economic productivity," CAP notes.
"We all as a society have a responsibility," Harris said, "to own our role and our potential to improve these numbers."
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.