School dropout, a persistent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean that will worsen
In 2018, only 64.4% of young people between 18 and 20 years old in the region had completed secondary, while in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries this value exceeded 86%. In fact, 22.5% of those between 18-24 years old did not even manage to start upper secondary school. This problem is worse for the poorest students who graduate from secondary school, on average, 44.5% less than the richest. With the COVID-19 pandemic, school dropouts are expected to increase even more, by around 17%. This implies that more than one million students could stop attending school.
Given the complexity of the panorama and the urgency to act, many of the policy alternatives that have been effective to reduce dropout rates are being discussed, such as: early warning systems that can detect youth at risk of dropping out, conditional cash transfer programs and scholarships, mentoring and support programs, etc. However, in these discussions, little is mentioned about the important role that technical education could play as an alternative to prevent students from dropping out of school. In this post we share the results of a recent study that highlights how useful technical education can be to prevent and mitigate dropout rates.
But how does technical education affect high school dropout rates?
Technical education, due to its focus on practical learning and proximity to the world of work, can increase students’ motivation and offer them opportunities to combine their studies with income-generating activities, which could improve their motivation and engagement, and a lower the probability of dropping out. Thus, this type of education can offer solutions to address the main reasons for dropping out reported by students in the region, such as the need to work (34%), lack of interest (20%) and financial problems (16%) especially in the last grades of high school.
Despite this, until now existing evidence in the region did not allow researchers to conclude that technical education reduced dropout rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the conclusive evidence was focused only on some particular cases in the United States.
New evidence shows that technical content in high school can reduce the likelihood of dropping out
Fortunately, new evidence in the region shows that technical education during high school could also be a possible solution to high dropout rates. This study finds that students who had the opportunity to enroll in technical secondary education have a 42-47% lower probability of dropping out before the last year of secondary education compared to those enrolling in academic secondary education.
The lower dropout rate is largely explained by the educational content, and the greater interest that the technical curriculum generates in students, and it does not seem to have a negative effect on learning in basic subjects, such as mathematics and language. This last result is very important, since one common critique of the benefits of technical education is that it uses valuable time that could be dedicated to support learning in core subjects.
The results of our study give way to optimism, since it suggests that technical secondary education can also be effective in reducing dropout rates in the region without affecting learning in core subjects. Therefore, countries in the region should consider it as a possible alternative to reduce dropout rates, and at the same time, prepare students for a more competitive and challenging labor market due to the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Do you think that technical education can help reduce dropout rates in your country? Leave us your comments below, or on Twitter mentioning @BIDEducacion #EnfoqueEducacion.
 For references on the effects of technical education on interest in school, effort, and academic outcomes in high school, see Dougherty, 2018; Brunner, et.al., 2019; Hemelt, et.al., 2019, Shernoff et al. (2003) or Carbonaro (2005).
 Source: IDB household survey databases in Latin America and the Caribbean.
 This study uses students with very comparable characteristics to obtain its conclusions (for whom being able to attend technical education is almost random) and benefits from the existence of academic secondary schools with characteristics very similar to technical secondary schools. These two characteristics allow to obtain reliable results on the effects of technical education.