Cost per Graduate

Dropout factories

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The most recent edition of the OCPA Perspective ran an article by yours truly on measuring the “cost per graduate”:

Suppose you buy your daughter ten piano lessons at $20 apiece, but you forget to take her to the first two lessons. You have to pay for all 10 lessons, but she only gets eight of them. Being a conscientious parent, you then buy your daughter another two lessons at $20 apiece so she can complete the 10-lesson course of instruction. And this time you remember to take her!

How much did you spend per lesson? Not $20, but $24. It’s pretty simple math: you spent a total of $240, and your daughter got 10 lessons. Yes, the immediate cost of each lesson at the time you paid for it was $20, but the total cost per lesson ended up being 20 percent higher than that because you didn’t do your job with the first two lessons…

Oklahoma’s high school graduation rate is only 78.5 percent. According to calculations from the U.S. Department of Education, about 10,529 Oklahoma students who ought to have graduated from high school in 2010 dropped out instead. A state that spends so much has a right to expect a lot better than that from its schools.

The education of these dropouts is roughly analogous to the two missed piano lessons. The people of Oklahoma paid the schools to educate these students, but the students didn’t get the education Oklahoma paid for.


I calculate that if we look at spending per high school graduate instead of per student, at current spending levels the annual cost of Oklahoma public schools is not $8,630, but $10,483.

The most important question is not whether Oklahoma taxpayers can afford to go on spending $10,483 per graduate every year, although that question matters. The most important question is whether Oklahoma can afford to go on failing 10,529 students in every high school class, year after year. Schools, like students, need to learn to see a tough task through until it’s complete. And if they tell us they’re having too much trouble learning, reforms like school choice could help them get up to speed.


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