How to Drop Out of High School and Still Succeed in Life
By Luke Redd
| Last Updated July 21, 2020
Do you really want to know how to drop out of high school and succeed? It takes guts to admit that you do. But you're in good company. Plenty of people want the same answers. To drop out of school means to quit your studies before finishing them. But it doesn't mean giving up on your life.
After all, life is different for everyone. We all have our own hopes and challenges. And the paths to success are just as varied as the people on this planet. No two are ever truly identical. So you don't have to follow the crowd in order to have a satisfying journey.
Even so, it helps to know where the potential pitfalls are. And it helps even more to know the strategies that other people have used. That's because, before you arrive at a brighter future, you first have to overcome what's holding you back.
Think about it: By saying, "I want to drop out of high school," you might be admitting that you feel trapped from moving forward—from being who you really are. And that's understandable. You probably have good reasons for feeling that way.
So take heart. Succeeding as a high school dropout is totally possible. And it's never too late to pursue better opportunities, even if you dropped out a long time ago. This article will give you a better understanding of the issue. And it will even help you learn how to drop out of school without giving up on going to college or getting career training. Check out the following sections:
- High school dropout facts
- Reasons why students drop out of high school
- Do successful high school dropouts really exist?
How to drop out of high school (without regretting it later)
- Ensure that you can legally drop out
- Write down your goals for the future
- Explore all available options
- Instead of dropping out, consider "rising out"
- Earn a GED or other high school equivalency credential
- Get college-level training without a high school diploma or GED
- Practice effective job searching
- Jobs for high school students
High School Dropout Facts
According to Pew Research Center, America's high school dropout rate hit a record low in 2016. Only six percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 had dropped out. That resulted in a high school graduation rate of 84.1 percent—the highest on record.
However, high school dropout rates, by state, can vary quite a bit. For example, according to KIDS COUNT, in 2017:
- Between two and seven percent of 16- to 19-year-olds in America were not in school and had not graduated from high school. The lowest rates were in Connecticut and Virginia. The highest rate was in New Mexico.
- Between four and 14 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds were not high school graduates. The lowest rates were in Hawaii, North Dakota, and the District of Columbia. The highest rate was in Mississippi.
So high school dropout rates are not increasing. It seems that fewer and fewer high school students are deciding to drop out. And the number of schools that are considered "dropout factories" is also decreasing. In fact, according to America's Promise Alliance, large high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or below declined in number by about 40 percent from 2002 to 2016.
- Students started dropping out of school many decades ago. In fact, the concept of "dropping out" became part of American culture in the 1960s. But even in the many decades before then, a huge portion of the teenage population never graduated from high school. At the beginning of the 20th century, the vast majority of America's youth didn't attend high school at all.
- More than half a million students drop out of high school each year in the U.S.
- Male students are more likely than female students to drop out of high school.
- When it comes to college dropout rates, the numbers are just as interesting. For example, only about 63 percent of first-time, full-time college students who began their educations in 2011 ended up graduating from the same or different schools by 2017. That's according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Reasons Why Students Drop Out of High School
Every dropout has his or her own reasons for leaving school. But those reasons often stem from experiences that are common to many other students. For instance, in a survey of American high school dropouts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, almost half of them cited boring and irrelevant classes as the main factors that drove them to leave school. Other factors that are often at play include:
- Not feeling supported, challenged, or motivated
- Not being able to keep up with schoolwork, especially after missing several days of classes
- Having to find a job in order to help out a single parent or younger siblings
- Having to care for a family member who is sick or disabled
- Becoming a parent
- Experiencing a lot of social anxiety
- Feeling disrespected
- Feeling a strong need for more adventure
- Believing that time would be better spent doing other things
Some students also feel discouraged or intimidated by the culture of standardized testing and the pressure to become college- and career-ready. Of course, even some post-secondary students consider dropping out of college, sometimes for similar reasons as those above.
What's clear is that almost nobody just suddenly decides to become a dropout. For many people who leave school, dropping out is the final result of feeling hopeless or disengaged over a long period of time. That's why a lot of school districts have dropout prevention programs aimed at helping teachers and administrators discover and assist students who are at the greatest risk of leaving school. They consider factors such as:
- How often a student misses classes
- How many behavioral violations a student has had
- How many courses a student has failed
- Where a student lives
- Whether a student's parents are gainfully employed
- How much support a student has at home
- Whether a student has any siblings who have dropped out
Do Successful High School Dropouts Really Exist?
Yes. In fact, some of the most successful people in the world never graduated from high school. And for every famous dropout, many other dropouts exist who quietly lead prosperous and fulfilling lives. Some of the most well-known high school dropouts include:
- Richard Branson, the billionaire CEO of Virgin
- David Karp, the multimillionaire founder of Tumblr
- Award-winning filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson
- Hollywood actors like Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones
- Music stars such as 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Billy Joel
- Several other millionaires from the worlds of business, sports, and entertainment
Contrary to what some people mistakenly believe, Microsoft's most famous cofounder did graduate from high school. However, Bill Gates is not a college graduate. He dropped out of Harvard. But he has received many special honors throughout the years. As a result, Bill Gates does have a college degree. In fact, he has several honorary doctorate degrees from various universities around the world, including Harvard.
The bottom line is that you don't need your high school diploma to make it in life, but your path could be a lot more challenging if you don't have it. With a clear vision of what you want, almost anything is possible. But it generally takes a lot of drive, courage, skill, effort, and luck in order to attain such high levels of success. And not every high school dropout is so fortunate.
The consequences of dropping out of high school are that you will be more likely to become a prison inmate or the victim of a crime. You will also have a higher chance of becoming homeless, unemployed, and/or unhealthy. Simply put, a lot of bad stuff potentially happens if you drop out. Those consequences aren't guaranteed by any means. But you'll be at greater risk of experiencing them. Consider these facts:
- Based on nationwide median earnings, if you drop out of high school, you make $592 per week. With a high school diploma, you make $746. So without any college education, a high school graduate makes $154 more per week than a dropout.
- Over their lifetimes, high school dropouts, on average, earn about one million dollars less than college graduates, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
- Among those who don't have a GED, more than six percent of high school dropouts end up in jail (compared to only one percent of high school graduates and just 0.1 percent of people with bachelor's degrees).
So if you want to minimize your risk of experiencing negative consequences, then it is important to have a high school diploma (or an equivalent credential like a GED).
How to Drop Out of High School (Without Regretting It Later)
Few people would ever recommend making this decision. And that includes people who have already dropped out. In fact, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation survey of high school dropouts indicates that over 70 percent of them would choose to finish school if they could go back and do things all over again. That says a lot.
But you don't need a lecture. You have your own reasons for considering this path. And maybe you've already pursued it and just need some extra guidance to help you move forward from where you are right now.
So how do you drop out of high school without messing up your future? Great question. No single formula exists that will work for everyone. However, a high school dropout can be successful by taking some of the seven actions below. These steps could go a long way toward keeping you out of trouble while steering you closer to success.
1. Ensure That You Can Legally Drop Out
Every state in America has mandatory schooling. It is against the law for a child not to go to school. If you don't attend a public, private, or parochial school, you must be homeschooled in accordance with your state's laws. So, at what age can you drop out of school without parental consent? Depending on the particular state, all students are legally required to stay in school until reaching the age of 16, 17, 18, or 19 (if they don't graduate first). That means you cannot drop out of middle school. It also means that it's essential to know the legal age to drop out of school in your state. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2017:
- School is mandatory in Texas until age 19.
- Twenty-four states (48 percent) require schooling until age 18.
- Ten states (20 percent) require schooling until age 17.
- Fifteen states (30 percent) require schooling until age 16.
Keep in mind that the rules for dropping out aren't always as straightforward as reaching a certain age. For example, you can drop out of school at 16 in New York, but only if the board of education for your school district doesn't have additional requirements. (In some districts, you may be required to stay in school until the last day of the academic year in which you become the legal age to drop out.)
Despite these requirements, most states will allow students to drop out before reaching the legal age as long as they have their parents' consent. However, some states also require approval from school officials, which can be difficult to attain. And in a few states, you might have to pass a GED exam or other high school equivalency test.
Simply put, you can drop out of high school if you meet the requirements of both your state and school district.
What are the consequences of dropping out before you reach the legal age? If you don't have state authorization to stop attending school, you might be cited for truancy. And that can lead to costly legal problems for you as well as your parents. Punishment might include monetary fines, community service, or the suspension of your driver's license. In some cases, you might even need permission in order to work.
2. Write Down Your Goals for the Future
It always helps to see where you're trying to go. So put it on paper. That way, you'll be less likely to make a decision that slams the door on one or more of your dreams. And you'll have a better idea of where to focus your attention and which challenges are truly worth taking on.
For example, start visualizing the goals that you want to achieve in each area of your life. Or at least brainstorm several possibilities that make you feel good when you think about them. Where do you want to live? What kind of job will you enjoy? Will you have kids? If so, how many? Will you travel? How much will you need to earn in order to have the kind of lifestyle you want?
The more specific you make your goals, the better. They'll begin to create a roadmap to your future. Then you can research exactly what you'll need to do to get there.
For some goals, dropping out of high school might not matter so much. But for most goals, you may discover that you'll need to take some extra actions that high school graduates usually don't need to take. And that's OK. It's just better to know what those challenges might be up front.
3. Explore All Available Options
This step plays a major part in deciding what to do after dropping out of high school. After writing down your goals, take a lot of time to research what you'll need and how you might make them happen. For example, will you need a college degree or a specific kind of vocational credential in order to qualify for the career you want? If so, you may need to find schools and special programs that assist high school dropouts with learning the college- and career-readiness skills that can lead to success.
Or maybe what you need, for now, is a wider variety of experiences and a broader perspective. In that case, it might be worth looking into travel opportunities. Even a short weekend adventure can sometimes be enough to provide a beneficial spark of inspiration or insight. And don't overlook volunteering as a way to develop skills and connections that may lead to surprising and positive opportunities.
The point is to keep your eyes open for any people or resources that can assist you in building the life you envision. You might just discover that most people want you to succeed. So don't shy away from asking for help. Just be ready to put in the necessary effort when that help arrives.
One other possibility to consider is just taking a temporary break from high school instead of permanently quitting. As long as you are still of legal school age, you can go back to high school after dropping out for a year. (Most states have a maximum age limit for providing free public education. Depending on the state, that age is anywhere from 17 to 26, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. So if you are still younger than the age limit, you can return to school.) Plus, many school districts offer alternative or "second chance" programs that provide extra support to former dropouts.
4. Instead of Dropping Out, Consider "Rising Out"
Maybe you dislike having to physically show up at the same school every day and follow a rigid schedule. Or maybe the social or physical environment of your high school causes you anxiety and discomfort. For many students, those factors become big reasons to drop out of high school. But a lot of them discover a different solution—one that allows them to continue their education with renewed hope and motivation.
Rising out is a way to take back some control without quitting on school altogether. It can empower you to transcend the system that has made you feel trapped. Three of the most common ways to rise out include:
- Transferring to a different high school—Admittedly, this option isn't available to everyone. And even if you do have the opportunity, you might not end up in a better school. However, it is always an option worth exploring. Every year, hundreds of high school students transfer to other schools and become happier and more successful because of it. A change of scenery, different teachers, and new classmates might be all you need to start thriving again.
- Going to an alternative school—Many public school districts throughout the U.S. provide this kind of option. Alternative schools are often set up to help at-risk students complete their high school education. For example, many of them provide better learning settings for students who struggle with their grades. Some of them are also good for students who are pregnant, have learning disabilities, or struggle with other social challenges like poverty or mental health issues.
- Homeschooling / unschooling—With this option, you and your parents take charge of your education. You just need to follow the guidelines of your state and school district, which will likely involve documenting your learning. But you'll have more control over how, where, when, and what you study. It's all about self-directed, adventure-filled learning and having the freedom to explore what interests you in a less-structured environment. Many unschoolers even take distance-learning courses that have open enrollment. And some massive open online courses (MOOCs) can lead to college credit. The possibilities for designing your own learning experiences are truly extensive. And more and more colleges and technical schools now welcome homeschoolers and unschoolers.
- Completing your high school diploma online—Believe it or not, many students are able to earn their diplomas through online high school programs. The courses are usually very similar to what you would take at a physical high school except that they enable you to learn from home and choose your own schedule. It's an option that is especially popular with student athletes, entertainers, and those who do a lot of traveling or have intense social phobias. Plus, taking an accelerated online program is a way to graduate high school early since you can sign up for extra classes and earn credits when most other students are on break. (You don't have to be above a certain age to graduate high school.)
By rising out instead of dropping out, you gain the advantage of being able to earn your high school diploma on more of your own terms. And you end up with a credential that keeps many more doors open for you, including better employment and college opportunities. Later on, if you ever lose or misplace your original diploma, you can get a copy of your high school diploma by contacting the school you graduated from or getting in touch with the school district or state education department. You'll just need to provide proof of your identity.
Here's something else you should know: You can still get a high school diploma if you drop out. Many online colleges offer high school diploma programs that you can take at any age. But you'll likely need to pay tuition. Typically, it costs less than $1,500 per year or under $400 per course to get a high school diploma online. Just be aware that it is not possible to buy your high school diploma. Any website that offers a diploma for a fee—without any classes or effort—is a scam. Fake diplomas are illegal.
5. Earn a GED or Other High School Equivalency Credential
For dropouts who don't have a high school diploma, getting GED certification is often a smart move. GED stands for General Educational Development. It's a trademark that's licensed to the GED Testing Service. By passing a series of tests that measure your basic knowledge of math, science, reading, writing, and social studies, you can earn a credential that is often accepted at the same level as a traditional high school diploma.
That's why a GED is not a bad thing at all. It's a very popular option.
And when it comes to the educational and employment opportunities you can pursue, a GED is the same as a high school diploma. In the U.S., almost all colleges accept a GED. So you can get your GED and go to college, university, or trade school. The difference between a high school diploma and a GED is that you earn each one by different means. For a diploma, you have to complete a minimum number of required classes. For a GED, you simply have to pass a few tests.
However, keep in mind that some states may not offer GED tests. Instead, they might offer alternative exams that still lead to widely recognized high school equivalency credentials. Examples include the HiSET and TASC exams.
Whichever exam you decide to take, you'll definitely need to prepare for it. That's because it will test your knowledge and ability in subjects like math, science, reading, writing, and social studies. But many programs and resources exist that can help you study and practice for it.
The advantage of having a certificate of high school equivalency is that you'll be eligible for many more jobs, college programs, and financial aid options than if you remain without any credential at all.
6. Get College-Level Training Without a High School Diploma or GED
Here's a big point to consider: If you're able to earn a college degree or some other type of post-secondary credential, then most employers won't care that you don't have a high school diploma (or equivalent). Your college-level training is the only education you'll need to show on your resume.
But is it even possible to get that level of training if you've never finished high school or earned a GED certificate? Actually, yes. Not all colleges require a high school diploma or GED. And the great thing about college or vocational school is that you're a lot less likely to encounter the same issues that caused you frustration in high school. In fact, chances are good that you'll be able to meet many people who share your interests and are eager to help you.
So you can drop out of high school and go to college (even without a GED). You can also go to a trade school without a diploma or GED. But that isn't true for all post-secondary schools. That's why you first need to look for colleges or trade schools that offer applicants the chance to take an Ability to Benefit (ATB) test. Many schools use ATB tests to assess the current academic skills of potential students who haven't completed a high school education. They want to know that you have at least a minimum amount of ability in areas like math, reading, and writing in order to benefit from their courses of study.
Check out this school finder tool to discover vocational schools near you and learn more about whether they offer these options.
If you pass an ATB test, then you might be admitted to a college or trade school on a provisional basis. That is, your admission will have certain conditions attached to it. If you don't pass, then you will likely be referred to some kind of adult basic education program that can help you improve your academic skills and prepare you for a high school equivalency test.
According to a survey by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education, a little over 57 percent of four-year colleges in the U.S. have provisional admission programs. But you're most likely to find them at community colleges, vocational colleges, and trade and technical schools. Here are some additional things to know about provisional enrollment:
- It's generally used to enroll non-traditional students who don't meet the standard qualifications yet still show the potential to succeed. In a lot of cases, it's used for enrolling older adults. About 37 percent of America's college students in fall 2019 were over the age of 25.
- You likely won't qualify for federal financial aid unless your program is one of the eligible career pathway programs described below.
- You might need to maintain a minimum grade point average while enrolled.
- You may be required to make use of tutoring, mentoring, or other student services.
- You might be given a reduced course load that includes adult literacy classes.
- Before you graduate, you might be required to earn a GED or high school equivalency diploma.
Career Pathway Programs for Low-Skills Adults
These options help address some of the reasons why students drop out of college or never have the opportunity to attend in the first place. For example, many adult learners have a hard time balancing their job, childcare, and school responsibilities. And it's not uncommon to hear them say things like, "I want to drop out of college because I don't see how my classes apply to a future career or a better job."
By passing an ATB test, you might qualify for a career pathway program that helps you prepare for an in-demand trade or vocation in your region. It's a way to earn college credentials and employable skills all at the same time. And you don't need a high school diploma or GED to get started.
Several states now offer adult education bridge programs that lead to in-demand careers. For instance, the I-BEST program in Washington State has inspired similar programs across the U.S.
Plus, if your program qualifies, then you might even be eligible for federal financial aid such as grants or loans. That kind of assistance can go a long way toward helping you pay for your training. So when exploring the programs at colleges and trade schools, inquire about their ATB alternatives. And ask whether passing an ATB test would make you eligible for financial assistance in the program you want to take. To be eligible for Title IV federal aid, your program must:
- Align with the skill needs of your region's labor market and industries
- Involve key business and economic-development partners from your region
- Provide support services such as academic and career counseling
- Be structured in a way that accounts for the needs of adult students
- Provide clear pathways to educational and career advancement
- Provide options for accelerated learning
- Include an adult education component that includes instruction in subjects like math and English at the high school level
Even if you don't pursue a special program, you can go to college with no money by taking advantage of financial aid. If you qualify, the Federal Pell Grant and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant are available for college. You may qualify for a grant to go back to school if you have a proven need for financial assistance. Subsidized student loans are also available.
There is no maximum income to qualify for financial aid. That's because the amount of aid you can receive is calculated by subtracting the full cost of attendance (COA) for your school from your expected family contribution (EFC), which is the amount that you and/or your family (if you're a dependent) should be able to put toward your education. So if your EFC is lower than your COA, you will likely be eligible for need-based assistance. You can estimate your expected family contribution by using on online EFC calculator.
If you don't qualify for enough need-based financial aid to cover all of your educational costs, you can apply for unsubsidized student loans as well as various types of scholarships. Plus, keep this in mind: You can go back to school if you have student loans already, as long as your loans aren't in default.
By knowing how to succeed in college, you can avoid being one of the people who fail to graduate. (The six-year dropout rate for college students who are attending post-secondary school full-time, for the first time, is 27.4 percent. Most of those students never finish. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that almost 14 percent of college students drop out after the first year.)
7. Practice Effective Job Searching
Knowing how to find and approach potential employers is one of the most important skill sets you can develop. But it's especially crucial for high school dropouts. To overcome perceptual barriers caused by your small amount of education, you'll need to place extra focus on:
- Getting help with crafting an effective resume and drafting cover letters
- Developing and promoting your work experience
- Acquiring employable skills that you can demonstrate
- Fostering a positive and energetic attitude
- Building a reputation for being adaptable and reliable
- Finding supportive people who can act as good references
- Dressing in a way that matches who you want to become
As you look for employment opportunities, it's essential to remember that job openings aren't always advertised. So it's often worth the extra effort to research the employers that truly interest you and approach them with confidence. You never know who might pass your information along to someone who can get you hired. Don't be shy about:
- Asking people you know for letters of reference
- Calling businesses and offering your services
- Asking for the names of hiring managers
- Talking to hiring managers or business owners by phone or in person
- Sending customized resumes and cover letters to employers that you've talked to
- Inquiring about when employers might be hiring
- Following up and staying in touch with the employers you've spoken to
Jobs for High School Dropouts
Many reliable and decent-paying job options exist for people who've never finished high school. In fact, a number of industries employ relatively high percentages of high school dropouts. For example, you may be able to find good opportunities in sectors like construction, manufacturing, transportation, office support, and hospitality. Some people even have success with entrepreneurship.
It's also worth keeping in mind that a lot of trade and vocational schools will enroll high school dropouts who show an ability to benefit from their programs. So you don't necessarily have to rely on on-the-job training alone. A few examples of good occupations that you might consider pursuing without a high school education include:
- Wholesale sales representative
- Truck driver
- Auto mechanic
- Diesel mechanic
- Construction manager
- Commercial or industrial maintenance technician
- Restaurant or food service manager
- Administrative assistant
- Patient care technician
Also, don't limit your job search to the private sector. Many government jobs are open to people with very little education. For example, it's possible to qualify for federal government jobs at the GS-1 level without a GED or high school diploma. But if you do have a GED or equivalent certification, then you can qualify for jobs at the GS-2 level. And such jobs usually come with paid leave as well as health and dental benefits. Some agencies will even repay your federal student loans if you go back to school and work to advance your education and career.
Other jobs that are available for high school dropouts are in areas like machine operation, oil or gas drill operation, drywall installation, tile setting, carpet installation, concrete finishing, roofing, house painting, truck loading, agricultural labor, landscaping, cleaning, cooking, packing, food serving, and bartending.
In most states, you can't become a real estate agent without a high school diploma or GED. In the majority of cases, you also have to have a high school diploma to become a security guard. But in that field and many others, you can get a job with a GED since most employers recognize it as being equal to a high school diploma.
Of course, if you do get your high school diploma, then additional opportunities will open up for you. For example, here's something you may not know: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest-paying job with a high school diploma and no experience as the minimum entry-level requirements is nuclear power reactor operator. It pays a median annual wage of $100,530 after a lot of on-the-job training. Here are a few more of the highest-paying jobs you can get with a high school diploma and some on-the-job training and work experience:
- Storage, distribution, or transportation management—$94,560
- First-line supervision of police officers—$91,090
- Power dispatch or distribution—$90,700
- Commercial piloting—$86,080
- Criminal investigation—$83,170
- Elevator repair or installation—$84,990
- Power plant operation—$81,990
Rise to Your Future
High school represents only one chapter. Your life will be full of many others. But it's up to you to help write them. Success is possible. It just takes knowledge and action.
So why not take a little time to explore some potential training options? You may just discover a path that will inspire you to move forward with renewed optimism. Enter your zip code in the following search box to see a list of colleges and trade schools that might be able to assist you on your journey!