School dropout rates are an important basic indicator of youth well-being. Nearly four times as many foreign-born youths as native-born youths are out of school. Youths who do not complete high school have greatly restricted opportunities in post-secondary education and their employment rates and earnings are significantly below those of youths who do finish high school. On average, the prospects of foreign-born youths are clearly diminished by their difficulties in finishing high school.

The aggregate foreign-born dropout rate is a poor indicator of how well immigrant youths are faring in U.S. schools. Nearly one third of immigrant 15-to-17-year-olds lived abroad five years ago. Their schooling outcomes are as much a reflection of schools in their countries of origin as they are of U.S. schools. The dropout rate of foreign-born youths who arrived early in childhood, and thus are educated mostly, if not exclusively, in U.S. schools, is only modestly above the native-born dropout rate. Early childhood arrivals from many countries of origin have lower estimated dropout rates than native-born youths.

Immigrant youths bring their schooling histories with them to America. A small proportion of foreign-born teens had schooling difficulties before arriving in the United States; either they had already dropped out of school in their country of origin or they had been retained in grade. Prior difficulties are highly predictive of current school enrollment status. Most of these youths are not in school currently and this small proportion of foreign-born youths accounts for nearly 40 percent of all foreign-born high school dropouts.

The likelihood of recently arrived, foreign-born school dropouts who had schooling difficulties before migration enrolling in school seems remote. Many of them are behind their peers in their schooling. If they were to enroll they would be attending class with students much younger than themselves. In addition, they display a high degree of attachment to the labor market. Many are working, and working full time. Approaches other than traditional high school retention programs may be needed to address the skill-development needs of these youths.

Much of the recent literature on the adjustment of foreign-born youths has emphasized the effects of exposure to U.S. cultural attitudes and norms as time in the United States increases. Concerns have often been voiced that some immigrant youths living in poor central city localities may adopt the despair and antipathy to formal schooling of more longstanding racial and ethnic minority youths (Perlmann and Waldinger, 1998). The evidence from this investigation of dropout rates suggests that such exposure is a secondary concern. First, the most severe dropout rates among the foreign born do not reflect exposure to American ways, but rather to educational problems before they ever migrated to America. Second, regardless of country of origin, youths who migrate early in childhood to the United States are more likely than their later-arriving peers to be enrolled in high school. Early childhood arrivals, who receive all or nearly all their schooling in the United States and thus have the longest exposure to U.S. schools and society, are the most likely to be in school.