Early school leavers in their later (adult) life and social consequences

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Klaudija Šterman Ivančič

ESL holds many far-reaching effects for an individual’s overall quality of life: lower employability, income and savings, inferior (public) health status, less risk aversion and increased criminality, less supportive social capital, and reduced lifetime satisfaction. To successfully tackle ESL, it is therefore crucial for all actors involved to be aware of the consequences and help combat ESL on time.

Keywords : early school leaving 

This article explains the long-term effects of ESL on different aspects of an individual’s personal and social life. In defining the consequences of ESL, we start by examining Psacharopoulos’ (2007) framework of ESL consequences and cost estimation, where the author refers to the private, social and fiscal impacts of ESL. Since here we are mainly interested in those consequences with the greatest impact on an individual’s personal life (personal consequences) and the individual’s social functioning (social consequences), in the article we describe: a) private far-reaching consequences that, according to the author, refer to a higher incidence and duration of unemployment, lower initial and lifetime earnings, inferior health status (e.g. risk of psychological and somatic health problems), less risk aversion (e.g. drug use, criminal behaviour), reduced lifelong-learning participation, a lower quality of social capital (poorer and unsupportive social ties) and lower overall lifetime satisfaction; and b) social consequences that refer to increased criminality, lower positive spill-over effect of co-workers, lower positive intergenerational effects and inferior public health assistance access. A review of different studies that discussed these far-reaching private and social consequences of ESL (e.g. Crum et al., 1998; Hawkins et al., 1992; Henry et al., 1999; Jarjoura, 1993; Lamb, 1994; Silbereisen et al., 1995) on an individual’s overall well-being throughout their life confirmed these effects. We conclude it is therefore vital for different actors to be aware of the long-term consequences of ESL and that timely systematic intervention and compensation practices are essential. As part of this, it is very important to be aware of the individual’s reasons for ESL since in this way we can identify whether ESLrs are more likely to form a new stable identity or are at a greater risk of developing and intensifying maladaptive behaviours.


While addressing the consequences of ESL in adult life we encounter different conceptions of the importance of a certain type of consequence. In Europe, one of the most often addressed is certainly the unemployment of ESLrs since it has the most evident impact on both the labour market and economic growth (Alphen, 2009). However, the consequences of ESL for individuals are much wider and more far-reaching.

In an effort to minimise ESL rates, several attempts by different policymakers (e.g. EENEE, 2013) have been made to estimate the costs of ESL on different levels. The basis most commonly used in the literature for estimating such costs is Psacharopoulos’ (2007) framework for estimating the costs of ESL that addresses various areas of ESL consequences. The author defines the outcomes of ESL on three levels: private, social and fiscal (see Figure 1). On the private level, the author lists the higher incidence and duration of unemployment, lower initial and lifetime earnings, inferior health status, less risk aversion, reduced lifelong-learning participation, a lower quality of social capital and lower lifetime satisfaction. On the social level, he points to increased criminality, lower positive spill-over effects of co-workers, a lower rate of economic growth, lower intergenerational effects on children and parents, inferior public health assistance access, higher unemployment rates and lower social cohesion. On the fiscal level, he sees the most evident effects of ESL in lower tax revenues, higher unemployment and welfare payments, higher public health expenditures, increased police expenditures and higher criminal justice expenditure. Psacharopoulos (2007) also states there are direct and indirect effects between the duration of education and different aspects of consequences. For example, the direct effect of education on a health outcome is better awareness among the more educated of the harmful effects of smoking. Indirect effects arise when, for an example, a worker’s income supports his ability to pay for high quality health services, which leads to a reduced burden of disease on society (European Commission, 2010 and 2013). Since Psacharopoulos’ ESL consequences framework is one of the most widely used, including by the European Commission, we also employ it for its definition of the consequences of ESL on which our further descriptions are based.

JPEG - 311.1 kb
Figure 1. Consequences of ESL as defined by Psacharopoulos (2007)

The present article has two aims. The first is to focus on and describe the consequences of ESL that affect an individual on the private and social levels. Such ESL consequences have the biggest impact on an individual’s life, and his/her social functioning. At this point, we will not focus on the fiscal consequences of ESL and certain aspects of social consequences with a more widespread, societal impact (e.g. a lower rate of economic growth, higher unemployment rates and lower social cohesion). The consequences that will not be addressed in this article are coloured in grey in Figure 1. Since we are examining social consequences from the individual’s perspective, i.e. the effects ESL has on an individual’s social life and closer surroundings, some private and social consequences are linked to the same area of an individual’s life (e.g. less risk aversion and increased criminality). Accordingly, we combined private and social consequences with a similar content. The article’s second aim is to draw attention to the fact that ESL has a long-reaching effect that greatly impacts an individual’s quality of life in different areas and to point out it is important to raise awareness of the consequences it can bring in order to prevent it on time.


When reviewing the literature in the area of the consequences ESL holds for an individual who has left school early, we first conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost online research databases (Academic Search Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, PsycBOOKS, PsycINFO, and SocINDEX with Full Text databases). The main keywords initially used were: ESL and social consequences and consequences of ESL. This yielded a limited set of results. By searching for related results online we noticed the consequences of ESL are often described together with the antecedents of ESL and the costs of ESL on the national and European levels. In this way, we extended our online research databases search with keywords referring to the antecedents and consequences of ESL, the costs of school failure and calculating the costs of ESL. We also examined references cited in the reviewed articles and paid special attention to the reports of different European Commission expert group reports, i.e. the European Expert Network on Economics of Education (EENEE). Texts taken into account had to address the private and social consequences of ESL along with direct and indirect interactions between different areas of consequences.

Private and social far-reaching consequences of ESL

In this section, we further describe the private and social consequences of ESL as defined in the introduction. Thus, the private and social far-reaching consequences of ESL we present in this section are: higher incidence and duration of unemployment, lower initial and lifetime earnings, inferior health status and public health assistance access, less risk aversion and increased criminality, reduced lifelong-learning participation, lower quality of social capital (lower positive spill-over effects of co-workers) and lower lifetime satisfaction (negative intergenerational effects).

Higher incidence and duration of unemployment

Various sources (e.g. Garfinkel, Kelly, & Waldfogel, 2005; Gyönös, 2011; Lamb, 1994; U.S. Department of Labor, 2004) state that ESLrs are 72% more likely to be unemployed than high-school graduates. ESLrs are thus also likely to receive public assistance. Gyönös (2011) found that a low qualification level and the possibility of becoming unemployed increase in direct proportion. With constant changes in the skills required in the labour market, ESLrs are also becoming a less employed population as the years pass (EENEE, 2013). [1] As noted in the following descriptions of consequences, unemployment amongst ESLrs brings an important impact to different areas of an individual’s well-being.

Lower initial and lifetime earnings

An EENEE estimate (2013) puts the additional lifetime income of a student who stays at school for one extra year at more than €70,000. Further, Oreopoulos (2007) states that lifetime wealth increases by about 15% for an extra year of schooling. Therefore, parallel to the increased risk of ESLrs being uneducated and unemployed, both their initial and lifetime earnings drop. It is also important to note that ESLrs tend to be myopic since they do not possess the skills required for planning and managing their finances (Gyönös, 2011). This is an additional reason they usually possess low lifetime earnings in their adult life and thus a lower quality of life in general.

Lower health status and public health assistance accessibility

Early unemployment is also importantly connected to adult physical and psychological health problems. Hammarström and Janlert (2002) state that the most commonly stated health problems within the ESL population are psychological health problems (e.g. depression, anxiety), somatic health problems (e.g. headache, weight problems, gastric complaints, problems with locomotive apparatus, infections, accidental injuries, allergies), alcohol consumption, and smoking. Males are especially at risk for somatic and psychological health problems. The European Commission (2010) states, for example, that in England young men who are not in education or training are three times more likely to be depressed than those involved in any kind of educational activity. ESLrs are also less likely to have health insurance and are simultaneously at greater risk for both early death and a variety of poor health outcomes (Clark & Royer, 2010; Davidoff & Kenney, 2005; Mazumder, 2010). Lochner (2011) states there are many ways in which education improves health. They include stress reduction, better decision-making and information gathering, a higher likelihood of having health insurance, healthier employment, better neighbourhoods and peers, and low-risk health behaviours such as avoiding smoking, drinking, eating calorie-intensive food and refraining from exercising. Education is therefore closely tied to many aspects of an individual’s quality of health and as such also holds far-reaching effects for an individual’s health in adulthood (European Commission, 2010).

Less risk aversion and increased criminality

Different studies (e.g. Aloise-Young, Cruickshank, & Chavez, 2002; Crum, Ensminger, Ro, & McCord, 1998; Fegan & Pabon, 1999; Henry, Caspi, Moffitt, Harrington, & Silva, 1999; Jarjoura, 1996; Voelkl, Welte, & Wieczorek, 1999) confirm that ESLrs are at greater risk of participating in all forms of delinquency (e.g. drug use and drug selling, criminal behaviour) and have more contacts with the juvenile justice system. Machin, Marie and Vucic (2011) defined three channels via which education may have an effect on crime: income effects, time availability, and patience or risk aversion. Time spent in education reduces the time available to participate in criminal activity. While at school, youngsters stay off the streets. Through education they also develop an awareness of the importance of risk aversion and understand the long-term effects of future punishment and future income losses from imprisonment (EENEE, 2013; Machin et al., 2011; Moretti, 2007; Moretti, Jacob, & Lefgren, 2007). Education also increases the possibility of legitimate work, higher income and thereby lowers the risk of illegal behaviour in the future (Brunello & De Paola, 2013; Jarjoura, 1993).

Reduced lifelong-learning participation

As mentioned, ESLrs are more likely to be unemployed, draw on welfare, and have even less of a chance to become employed as time passes (EENEE, 2013). Consequently, they lose their work-related social ties and a sense of purpose and belonging to a certain working community. Studies (e.g. Brunello & De Paola, 2013; EENEE, 2013; Moretti, 2007) show that, as such, in later life ESLrs are much less likely to be active citizens and to become involved in lifelong learning. If unemployed, in adult life they are already very distant from the education system, the skills required to be involved in the educational process and also the skills needed to successfully enter the labour market (Business Council of Australia, 2003). Lifelong-learning participation is therefore importantly affected by ESL (Fergusson, Swain-Campbell, & Horwood, 2002).

Lower quality of social capital (lower positive spill-over effects of co-workers)

Several authors (e.g. Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992; Jarjoura, 1993) confirm that educational failure leads to decreased social bonds with the school and communities, which in turn leads to a greater risk of crime and delinquent behaviours. An individual therefore finds his sense of belonging and becomes socially connected to groups that do not encourage his/her participation in education and legitimate work. ESLrs’ social disconnectedness therefore increases. Sweeten, Bushway and Paternoster (2009) also found that those who drop out of school tend to be more antisocial and thus have even less of a chance to find and connect with positive influences in their social surroundings.

Lower lifetime satisfaction and negative intergenerational effects

Oreopoulos (2007) states that not only does education improve an individual’s occupational prospects, wages and job satisfaction, but it also leads to more informed decision-making regarding health, marriage, parenting and retirement. Schooling also importantly affects individual non-cognitive skills and attitudes, such as risk aversion, patience and motivation, which influence economic choices. And these are all factors that shape an individual’s satisfaction with life and also form a basis for building a satisfactory life in the future and for future generations. With ESLrs dropping out of school too soon, they lose this potential and a greater risk also emerges of their future generations adopting maladaptive behavioural patterns.

Relatedness of the private and social consequences of ESL

As seen from the study results stated above relating to the long-term consequences of ESL, all of the consequences are somehow interrelated and together form an overall impact on ESLrs’ quality of life, including in adulthood. However, different researchers pose a question regarding the causality of those effects. Some authors (e.g. Crum et al., 1998; Hawkins et al., 1992; Henry et al., 1999; Jarjoura, 1993; Lamb, 1994; Silbereisen, Robins, & Rutter, 1995) suggest there is a causal association between leaving school without qualifications and later outcomes, such that: a) leaving school without qualifications reduces opportunities for social participation and integration; and b) reduced opportunities for social participation are reflected in higher rates of crime and other maladaptive behaviours. This implies that lowering the number of ESLrs will have a positive effect by way of reducing crime, substance use and welfare dependence. Some authors (e.g. Bridgeland, DiIulio, and Morison, 2006; Fergusson et al., 2002) oppose this point of view and describe these associations as non-causal. Their interpretation is that a wide range of adverse social, personal, educational and behavioural factors were present prior to an individual’s ESL such as a disadvantaged family background, lower cognitive ability, behavioural and adjustment problems etc. Further, that those factors are the ones that are reflected in an individual’s poorer social functioning and maladaptive behaviours in later life. In this context, ESL is merely a side-effect of those adverse factors and is a form of maladaptive behaviour.

However, this does not diminish education’s role and impact in providing equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their background, as a tool for combatting ESL. There is also evidence from a 21-year longitudinal study (Fergusson et al., 2002) which confirms that ESL is an important point in an individual’s life that later affects his/her quality of life in the sense of a greater risk for adverse outcomes including crime, substance abuse or dependence, welfare dependence and reduced participation in any form of education or training, i.e. behaviours that proved to be less present in a non-ESL population.


This article aimed to investigate different personal and social aspects of the consequences of ESL for an individual’s later life. Although there is no consensus regarding the causality between ESL and various private and social consequences, we may draw the conclusion that students at risk are individuals with specific social, personal, educational and behavioural characteristics who are more at risk of experiencing different negative consequences of ESL throughout their lives. As evident from the European Commission’s review reports on the consequences of ESL (2010 and 2013), lower education levels are associated with negative consequences like lower earnings and savings, lower labour market participation, worse health and lower health insurance, lower quality of encouraging social ties, higher levels of poverty and higher levels of criminal behaviour throughout an individual’s life. ESL therefore holds important negative far-reaching effects for an individual’s overall well-being.

Sweeten and colleagues (2009) point to an important moment when addressing the consequences of ESL. They state the effects of ESL depend on the reason for leaving school early. Students sometimes leave school because they find it boring, sometimes because they discover they are academically far behind, while others drop out for family reasons or financial demands to start work in order to survive. However, according to the authors the reason for ESL is an indicator of which developmental direction they are heading in and what will be their new identity. If ESLrs form a new, stable identity attached to another conventional institution (e.g. work), this will mean an entirely different set of consequences than dropping out with no direction, which often leads to increased crime and other maladaptive behaviours. And this is the point at which prevention and intervention programmes should take action so as to avoid or at least extenuate the negative personal and social consequences of ESL that affect all areas of an individual’s life. Potential solutions include greater collaboration between governments, businesses, communities, families and education and the implementation of a systematic approach to identifying and assisting young people at risk of ESL (Business Council of Australia, 2003; European Commission, 2013).


[1The prevailing understanding in modern society that ESL is a major cause of high unemployment is challenged by some authors (e.g. Ross & Leathwood, 2013; De Witte et al., 2013; Huart, 2013) who argue that keeping students in school will not resolve the problem of (youth) unemployment.

, , & (2002). Cigarette smoking and self-reported health in school dropouts: A comparison of Mexican American and non-Hispanic White adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 27, 497–507.

(2009). The educational quality of early school leavers and the cross-national variation of their income disadvantage. Educational Research and Evaluation: An International Journal on Theory and Practice, 15, 543–560.

(2008). The cost of early school-leaving and school failure. Queens College: Research report.

, , & (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. A report by civic enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart research associates for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises.

, & (2013). The costs of early school leaving in Europe. IZA Discussion Paper No. 7791.

(2003). The cost of dropping out: The economic impact of early school leaving. Business Council of Australia: Annual Report.

, & , (2010). The effect of education on adult health and mortality: Evidence from Britain. NBER Working Papers 16013, National Bureau of Economic Research.

, , , & (1998). The association of educational achievement and school dropout with risk of alcoholism: A twenty-five-year prospective study of inner-city children. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 59, 318–326.

, & (2005). Uninsured Americans with chronic health conditions: Key findings from the national health interview survey. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

, , , , & (2013). The impact of institutional context, education and labour market policies on early school leaving: A comparative analysis of EU countries. European Journal of Education, 48(3), 331–345.

(European Expert Network on Economics of Education). (2013). The costs of early school leaving in Europe. EENEE Analytical Report No. 17.

(2010). ERASMUS Early school leaving Factsheet. Retrieved from

(2013). Reducing early school leaving: Key messages and policy support. Final Report of the Thematic Working Group on Early School Leaving. Retrieved from

, & (1990). Contributions of delinquency and substance use to school dropout. Youth and Society, 21, 306–54.

, , (2002). Outcomes of leaving school without formal educational qualifications. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 37(1), 39–55.

, , & (2005). Public assistance programs: How much could be saved with improved education? Columbia University: Paper presented at the Symposium on the Social Costs of Inadequate Education.

(2011). Early school leaving: Reasons and consequences. Theoretical and Applied Economics, 18, 43–52.

, , & (1992). Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: Implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 64–105.

, & (2002). Early unemployment can contribute to adult health problems: Results from a longitudinal study of school leavers. Journal of Epidemiol Community Health, 56, 624–630.

, , , , & (1999). Staying in school protects boys with poor self-regulation in childhood from later crime: A longitudinal study. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23, 1049–1073.

(2013). La lutte contre le décrochage scolaire. Administration & Éducation, 137, 17-22.

(1993). Does dropping out of school enhance delinquency involvement? Results from a large-scale national probability sample. Criminology, 31, 149–172.

(1996). The conditional effect of social class on the dropout–delinquency relationship. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 33, 232–55.

(1994). Dropping out of school in Australia: Recent trends in participation and outcomes. Youth and Society, 26, 194–222.

(2011). Non-production benefits of education: Crime, health, and good citizenship. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER): Working Paper No. 16722.

, & (2004). The effect of education on crime: Evidence from prison inmates, arrests, and self-reports. American Economic Review, 94(1), 155–189.

, , & (2011). The crime reducing effect of education. Economic Journal, 121, 463–484.

(2008). Does education improve health: A re-examination of the evidence from compulsory schooling laws. Economic Perspectives, 33, 1–12.

(2007). Crime and the cost of criminal justice. In C. Belfield & H. Levin (Eds.), The price we pay (pp. 142–159). Washington: Brookings Institution.

, , & (2007). The dynamics of criminal behavior. Journal of Human Resources, 42(3), 2007.

(2007). Consequences in health status and costs. In C. Belfield & H. Levin (Eds.), The price we pay (pp. 125–141). Washington: Brookings Institution.

(2007). Do dropouts drop out too soon? Wealth, health and happiness from compulsory schooling. Journal of Public Economics, 91, 2213–2229.

(2007). The costs of school failure: A feasibility study. European Expert Network on Economics of Education.

, & (2013). Problematising early school leaving. European Journal of Education, 48(3), 405–418.

, , & (1995). Secular trends in substance use: Concepts and data on the impact of social change on alcohol and drug abuse. In M. Rutter, & D. J. Smith (Eds.), Psychosocial disorders in young people: Time trends and their causes (pp. 490–543). Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

, , & (2009). Does dropping out of school mean dropping into delinquency? Criminology, 47, 47–91.

(2004). So you are thinking about dropping out of school? Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor: Project report.

, , & (1999). Schooling and delinquency among white and African American adolescents. Urban Education, 34, 69–88.