School attendance, persistence, and alternative paths to graduation

Strategy overview

  • Helping students attend school and earn a secondary credential: Students with high levels of absenteeism have worse academic outcomes than their peers. Those who do not complete high school or earn an equivalent credential also face increased risk for a range of negative economic and health outcomes. Approaches to increase student attendance and persistence include dropout prevention programs, attendance and truancy interventions, mentoring programs, and alternative high schools. For adults and older adolescents that are disconnected from a traditional high school, alternative secondary credential programs may be appropriate.
  • Targeting the drivers of poor attendance: Attendance and truancy programs work to remove barriers students face to regular school attendance. Typically, programs offer a range of support services to address common causes of poor attendance, such as health problems, family issues, or academic challenges. In addition, some schools examine internal policies that promote absences, like out-of-school suspensions, to find alternatives that keep students in school. While many programs are school-based, those focused on students involved in truancy cases may be run by court systems.
  • Boosting student persistence: Dropout prevention programs aim to keep students in school by increasing school engagement, school attachment, and academic performance. Common approaches include reducing class sizes, offering tutoring, and starting mentoring programs. To further support students, many programs offer more intensive services, like case management and vocational training. Programs can be school- or community-based, and they can serve entire schools or target specific groups at high risk of dropping out, like students that are pregnant.
  • Offering alternative models of high school: Alternative high school programs aim to help students at risk of not completing high school earn a secondary credential. Programs vary considerably in form and intensity, with some being delivered in traditional school environments and others using separate facilities. Similarly, some programs focus on a narrow range of interventions, like mentoring, while others offer more comprehensive services, from counseling and tutoring to career education.
  • Helping individuals complete their secondary education: General Education Development (GED) and High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) programs help individuals without a high school diploma earn an equivalent credential. Credentials are awarded to students who pass a series of exams meant to test knowledge of high school subjects, like math, reading, and science. To increase students’ chance of success, programs typically offer academic supports, such as prep courses or tutoring. Some programs supplement academic supports with counseling or social services.
  • Matching students with mentors: Volunteer mentoring programs, like Big Brothers Big Sisters, recruit community members to serve as mentors to area youth. Typically, programs primarily focus on building supportive relationships between youth and their mentors. Program design varies, with both community- and school-based programs being common.

What evidence supports this strategy?

Strategies to improve attendance, strengthen school persistence, and create alternative paths to graduation are supported by multiple rigorous research syntheses with positive results.

  • A 2017 research synthesis found that attendance interventions for chronically absent students were a scientifically supported approach for improving student attendance.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs are a scientifically supported approach for increasing high school completion.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found that dropout prevention programs for teen mothers are a scientifically supported approach for increasing high school completion.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found that alternative high schools for at-risk students are a scientifically supported strategy for increasing high school completion.

  • A 2022 research synthesis found some evidence that high school equivalency credential programs increase earnings and reduce recidivism.

  • A 2016 research synthesis found some evidence that Big Brothers Big Sisters reduces delinquent behavior and increases academic achievement.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Creating alternative paths to graduation and improving school attendance and persistence has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are effective public education, preparation for college, school economic diversity, and just policing.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring the effectiveness of public education in your community: Examine the average per-grade change in English Language Arts achievement between the third and eighth grades. These data are available from Stanford University’s Education Data Archive.

  • Measuring preparation for college in your community: Examine the share of 19- and 20-year-olds with a high school degree. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

  • Measuring school economic diversity: Examine the share of students attending high-poverty schools by student race or ethnicity. These data are available from the Urban Institute’s Education Data Portal.

  • Measuring just policing in your community: Examine the number of juveniles arrested per 100,000. High rates of juvenile arrests provide a strong indicator of overall system involvement and over-policing. These data are available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Data Explorer.

Best practices in implementation

  • Identify barriers to attendance and persistence: Collecting data and conducting outreach to families allows attendance and truancy interventions and dropout prevention programs to identify the specific barriers students face in attending and graduating from school. Using this information, programs can better tailor the supports they offer to address these specific barriers (e.g., tutoring to address an academic issue).
  • Provide intensive and comprehensive supports: A range of factors can lead students to have issues with attendance or school persistence. As such, programs focused on improving attendance, reducing truancy, or improving graduation rates should offer a broad set of services to address students’ academic, behavioral, social, health, and family problems.
  • Cultivate student engagement: When students are engaged in their school, they are less likely to dropout or be chronically absent. Dropout prevention programs, truancy interventions, and alternative high schools can strengthen student engagement by reducing class sizes, offering personalized learning opportunities, and building relationships between teachers and students.
  • Help students transition into post-secondary opportunities: Programs offering alternative secondary credentials should incorporate strategies that improve students’ success when entering the workforce or pursuing post-secondary education. Examples include incorporating career-oriented materials into the curriculum and offering transitional services for students entering the workforce.
  • Focus on long-term relationships: When students have long-term, continuous relationships with mentors, they see the greatest improvement in academic and behavioral outcomes. Mentoring programs should screen for mentors able to commit to long-term relationships and offer them the training and support needed to be successful.

Evidence-based examples

Aiming to increase the likelihood that students at risk of academic failure receive either a high school diploma or GED
High school graduation
Supports and resources to address individual barriers to school attendance
High school graduation
Volunteer mentoring program matching community members with disadvantaged or at-risk youth
Elementary and middle school success High school graduation Supportive neighborhoods
A range of support services to increase school engagement and academic performance
High school graduation
Support services for students with children, including case management, health care, transportation assistance, childcare, tutoring, and remedial education
High school graduation Stable and healthy families
Individualized case management, mentoring and support services to help students graduate from high school and enroll in college
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation High school graduation
Support programs for individuals to earn a high school equivalency credential 
High school graduation Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Mentoring programs pairing adult volunteers with at-risk students to provide counseling and guidance
High school graduation
Interventions seeking to address student absenteeism, including academic supports and counseling
High school graduation Elementary and middle school success
Prevents youth disconnection through work readiness training, paid internships, and mentoring
High school graduation High-quality employment