1. Introduction

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Workers with no high school diploma tend to have greater difficulty securing a well-paying job and also tend to be more vulnerable to economic shocks. Their wages are on average lower than those of workers with a high school diploma (Ferrer and Riddell, 2002) and their unemployment rate has been five to six percentage points above both the national average and the rate for high school graduates throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.1 Yet, in 1999, 15% of young men and 9% of young women aged 20 (the 1979 birth cohort) had not completed high school (Bowlby and McMullen, 2002).2

Dropouts can return to high school and can even enter college directly after completing an academic upgrading program in some provinces. This is facilitated by provinces and institutions by what is often referred to as a "second chance system." Some 20% of the 1979 birth cohort dropouts took advantage of the second chance system in 2000 or 2001.3 A variety of factors can motivate a return to school, including parental pressures, recognition of the economic benefits obtained from the completion of a diploma and disappointing labour market experiences. Alternatively dropouts may have left school with the intention of returning to further their education, i.e. dropping out is meant as a temporary absence from school. Dropouts may find themselves in a situation that leads them to leave school even though they wish to complete high school and potentially, a postsecondary diploma. Personal circumstances, family situation and temporary difficulties of either an academic or financial nature may all make it almost impossible to attend school, forcing them to leave school temporarily.

More female dropouts take advantage of the second chance system then their male counterparts: among the 1979 birth cohort, 27% of female dropouts returned in the 2000-2001 period versus 23% of male dropouts. The gender differences are much larger among the dropouts of younger cohorts for the same period. Among the 1980 and 1981 cohorts, about 40% of young women returned to school compared to between 20% and 30% for young men.4 This gender gap in returns to school may be the product of differences in school-return aspirations at the time of dropping out. Young women may be leaving school more often due to outside forces than personal desire and therefore have greater motivation to return to school. This paper tests this hypothesis by looking at postsecondary aspirations, pre- and post-dropout.

Examining the factors that hinder or enable young dropouts to return to school can shed light on possible areas for improvement to the schooling system. Different policy responses may be required to address dropping out by young men and young women, for example. If women are leaving school in spite of a desire to complete, but are faced with barriers or other problems, then policy might address the barriers. On the other hand, if men leave school because they have low aspirations, then policy might be aimed at raising their aspirations.

Only a few studies have examined trends in, and the determinants, of dropping out in Canada and only one addresses school returns by dropouts (Bushnik et al 2004). Gender differences tend to be noted but the underlying causes are rarely explored. The present work investigates the phenomenon of return-to-school, by gender. It makes use of the Labour Force Survey to establish the trends over the last 15 years and the longitudinal Youth in Transition Survey to analyze the determinants of returning to school. The Youth in Transition Survey constitutes an ideal dataset to study the return to school in that it clearly identifies high school dropouts at one point in time and documents their schooling status two years later. It contains information about the family background, reasons for dropping out, personal aspirations, and an extensive academic history.

The analysis finds that very few factors influence young women's decisions to return, namely the circumstances that brought them to leave school in the first place, their aspirations for obtaining a postsecondary education (PSE), and the time elapsed since they left school. On the other hand, young men's return to school depends on their labour experience, past academic experience and decisions, along with postsecondary aspirations. For both women and men, results suggest that a major determinant of returning to school is whether the absence from school was considered temporary, as captured by their long-term postsecondary aspirations.

The paper proceeds as follows. It first presents dropout rates by gender over time and attempts to establish the predominance of returns. The next section outlines the decision to return to school in the context of economic theory. It then describes the Youth in Transition Survey dataset used for the analysis. Section V presents some descriptive statistics, then the analytical results and some information about the success of the returns. The paper concludes with some final observations and possible future research directions.