2. Trends in high school dropout and return rates

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Measuring dropout and return rates is a difficult task. The education information that is available and coverage vary from survey to survey and these variations inevitably lead to different rates. The trends presented here come from a special tabulation of the Labour Force Survey of Statistics Canada for the age group 20 to 24. The data span the academic years from 1990/1991 to 2004/2005.5 Looking at 20 to 24 year-olds as opposed to a younger age group allows the observation of individuals after the normal time for high school graduation. Individuals in this age group are more likely to return to school than older ones. A dropout is identified on the basis of the survey questions about having obtained a high school diploma as opposed to the highest diploma or degree completed. Anyone who responded that they had not obtained a high school diploma and who was not attending school is defined as a dropout. Whether the respondent obtained further education above high school is irrelevant to the present definition — if the respondent was attending any type of school, including a postsecondary institution, the respondent was excluded from the sample of dropouts. A more complete discussion of definitions and some further trends are presented in Appendix 1.6

Given that educational attainment has increased over time in Canada, the proportion of Canadians without a high school diploma and not attending school should have decreased. Chart 2.1 depicts the dropout rate trends, defined as the proportion of high school leavers not attending school among 20 to 24 year-olds by gender for the academic years 1990/1991 to 2004/2005. The dropout rate steadily declined over the period from 21% to 14% for men and from 16% to 9% for women, a drop of seven percentage points in both cases.7 This decline may result from both fewer youth leaving high school without graduating and a greater number of dropouts returning to complete their high school diploma before the age of 24.

Indeed, some high school leavers return to school. Chart 2.2 presents the proportion of dropouts that returned to attend school in a given academic year, independently of what type of school, i.e. high school, community college or other. These individuals were excluded from the dropout rates shown in Chart 2.1 since they were attending school. The proportion attending school was 10% and 12% for men and women, respectively, for the 1990/1991 academic year. This proportion nearly doubled for women, reaching 22%, and increased by 60% for men, reaching 16%, in 2004/2005. It should be noted that the enrolment data capture a wide range of courses and programs. Individuals may be taking only one course and not intend to obtain a certification. However, it can be noted that between 60% and 80% of students are attending full time in any one year. Students seeking a certificate or a diploma are probably more likely than those only enroled for one course to take up school full-time.

Chart 2.1
High school dropout1 rate among 20 to 24 year-olds, academic years 1990/1991 to 2004/2005

Chart 2.2
Return-to-school rates among high school leavers1 aged 20 to 24, to any type of school, academic years 1990/1991 to 2004/2005

As a greater proportion of leavers return to school, fewer return to complete their high school diploma, instead choosing to seek a postsecondary diploma or degree. Chart 2.3 shows the proportion of those attending a primary or secondary school among all the returnees.8 For men, this proportion held more or less steady at 57% until 1997/1998 and then declined to 36% in 2004/2005. For women, the same proportion oscillated throughout the period with a downward trend, declining from 44% to 31%. Over time, returnees were less likely to enter college programs and enroled more in other types of programs, including trade and vocational education.9

Chart 2.3
Proportion of returnees aged 20 to 24 attending primary or secondary school, academic years 1990/1991 to 2004/2005

The above trends reveal that fewer women leave high school without completing their diploma and that they also go back in greater proportions. As the descriptive statistics below will show, data from the Youth in Transition Survey for 18 to 20 year-olds show similar trends. Do women drop out for different reasons, more often involuntarily leave school and thus wish more to return to school? The next section reviews the literature on the determinants of dropping out in general and discusses the notion of involuntary dropouts before discussing the known differences between female and male dropouts.