Does dropping out of school mean dropping into delinquency?

Gary Sweeten, Shawn D. Bushway, Raymond Paternoster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


Approximately one third of U.S. high-school freshmen do not earn their high-school diploma on time. For African-American and Hispanic students, this figure nearly reaches one half. The long-term economic consequences of dropping out of school for both the student and the larger community have been well documented. It has also been argued that school dropouts put themselves at a higher risk for delinquent and criminal behavior when they leave school. Although it seems plausible that dropping out might increase the potential for delinquent conduct, another view states that dropping out is simply the final event in a long, gradual process of disenchantment and disengagement from school. Dropouts show evidence of school failure and developmental problems years in advance. It has been argued, therefore, that the actual event of finally leaving school has no causal effect on criminal or delinquent behavior because it has been so long in coming. In this article, we examine the effect of leaving school early, and the reason for dropping out, on delinquent behavior with the use of panel data models from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 Cohort (NLSY97). Through an appeal to identity theory, we hypothesize that the effect of dropping out is not uniform but varies by the reason for leaving school, gender, and time. This conjecture receives only partial empirical support. Implications for future work in the area are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-91
Number of pages45
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2009


  • Crime
  • Delinquency
  • High-school dropout
  • Identity theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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