The decision to drop out is a costly one. Just ask Lindsey Clements.

She was in her second year of ninth grade in 2001 when she got pregnant and dropped out. At age 16, she left Carey Junior High School in Cheyenne and briefly tried to take classes online before deciding to focus on supporting herself and her daughter.

“You had to be really self-motivated, and at 16, I just wasn’t,” she said. “I wanted to get a job and make money.”

Already working as a hostess and nanny, Clements’ income covered her daughter’s expenses and little else. She lived with her mother until she was 17 because she couldn’t afford her own place.

As she continued to struggle with daily expenses, Clements realized something needed to change in order to provide her daughter, MacKenzie, with a better life.

“She was probably five or six months old when it dawned on me that I’m not going to get anywhere,” Clements said. “I’m not going to make above minimum wage without getting my GED and getting some type of certification and going to college.”

She enrolled in CLIMB Wyoming, then called Fleming Associates Young Parent Program, to earn a certified nursing assistant license. It was a career that worked around her school schedule, as Clements completed her GED and enrolled in college. But it still didn’t pay enough to support herself and at times her family, which grew to include her son, Kayson, about two years ago.

Statistics show those without high school diplomas earn significantly less than their graduated counterparts and are more likely to be unemployed. While a high school diploma was not a requirement for her work as a CNA, Clements said some jobs are off-limits because of a person’s lack of education.

“There are definitely jobs that require a high school diploma, and I wouldn’t let my kids drop out,” she said. “I don’t want them to follow in my footsteps by any means.”

A Wyoming graduate, on average, earns $4,861 more each year than a high school dropout, according to a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education. For a high school class with about 2,000 students who did not graduate in 2011, the earnings lost during the course of a lifetime equate to $159 million.

This creates financial strain on students who drop out, and many need financial assistance.

“Most of the students who drop out from high school usually end up on some kind of social services,” said Sandy Barton, executive director of the Fremont County Board of Cooperative Education Services.

In April, people in the U.S. with less than a high school diploma had an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent, while people with diploma had an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent. The trend was similar in previous months, and unemployment rates decrease as education levels increase, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Between social services and lost productivity, the National Job Corps estimates the lifetime societal cost of a single dropout at $469,200. The annual public investment for a Job Corps enrollee is $27,000.

The U.S. Department of Labor program provides free education and training to help each student earn a diploma, GED or job skills. Wyoming and New Hampshire are the only states without Job Corps centers. New Hampshire is in the process of constructing one, and Wyoming is planning one.

Barton has been coordinating plans for the Wind River Job Corps Center in Riverton, which is seeking a company for construction, and said establishing career-based programs could help in the long run.

“It’s a long bridge out of poverty,” she said. “So you have to make sure that you’re trying to get the tools to these students in order to make sure they can survive at a self-sufficient rate and not be on social services.”

Clements is attending Casper College to earn an associate degree in management, a certification she’s struggled to find professional nursing jobs without. She said it will enhance her earning potential and could boost her from an annual salary of $27,000 to $30,000, to $40,000 to $45,000.

“That’s what it would take to pay all my bills 100 percent on my own and get my kids everything that they need and pay for day care,” she said.

Clements currently relies on the Wyoming Food Stamp Program, Children's Health Insurance Program, and Job Assist, a program through the Department of Workforce Services that pays tuition and book expenses so Clements can use financial aid for her bills. She also lives in an affordable housing complex, where residents are guaranteed a fixed rate but must meet low-income requirements.

“It’s still a struggle,” she said. “Every day’s a struggle because I don’t make enough money to pay all my bills and go to school.”

Tony Lewis, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Family Services, said the DFS doesn’t keep track of social service aid based on education but said teen mothers are generally single mothers, a large segment of the population served by DFS.

A study by researchers at Northeastern University showed that women who dropped out of high school between the ages of 16 and 24 were nine times as likely to be single mothers as women with bachelor’s degrees.

The same study showed incarceration rates for high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24 were 63 percent higher than those for four-year college graduates.

In 2010, about 31 percent of first-time Wyoming prison inmates had no diploma or GED, according to the Wyoming Department of Corrections. Thirty-two percent had diplomas, about 35 percent had GEDs, and the remaining 2 percent was undetermined.

“Kids who don’t graduate from high school are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, and kids in the juvenile justice system are more likely to end up in the adult criminal system,” Lewis said. “So there are definitely costs that way.”

In addition to early parenthood and higher incarceration rates, fewer years of schooling is also associated with a greater rate of drug use. According to an annual Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey released in February, 31.4 percent of high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 18 used illicit drugs. Only 18.2 percent of students the same age used illicit drugs.

While the correlations don’t mean one activity causes the other, Robert Godby, associate professor of economics and finance at the University of Wyoming, said the problems can compound each other.

“All of these social problems tend to group together,” he said.

Aside from drug use that deteriorates a person’s health, the low-income jobs most readily available to high school dropouts tend to involve heavy physical labor. These activities can increase the need for hospital visits, a benefit not everyone can afford.

“Basically, lower wages means less benefits at the end of your working life,” Godby said. “It also means that you’ve probably worked jobs that are more physically strenuous, so clearly health outcomes might be lower in that situation.”

People with low incomes can’t always contribute at the same rate they use government assistance. Godby said a low-income population also creates a lower tax base, whether the method of tax is sales, property or income.

The cost of changing the outcome is difficult to determine because, ideally, Godby said any reform effort must take social conditions into consideration. A higher-educated workforce would help the state attract more valued industries, though, and allow more people to contribute taxes that better society.

“Higher education leads to the ability to produce more, which creates generally more income and wealth in the country,” he said.

Clements said, now, years after making the decision herself, she wouldn’t recommend dropping out of high school. She tells her almost-teenage daughter education is one thing no one can take.

“There’s just a lot more opportunities if you do graduate, and get your high school diploma and go to college,” she said. “I mean, education is so important.”

Reach city reporter Kelly Byer at 307-266-0639 or Follow her on Twitter @KellyByer.

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