Duke TIP

What about Gifted Students Who Drop Out?

February 19, 2008


For more than four decades researchers have been interested in learning what happens to gifted students who drop out of high school. Estimates of the number of gifted learners who drop out differ widely, and a figure of 20 percent is often repeated despite the fact that there is little evidence to support it. Recent studies suggest that anywhere from 1 in 50 up to 1 in 200 academically gifted students fails to complete high school, depending on the criteria used to determine giftedness. Although dropping out of school remains relatively uncommon among academically gifted learners, clearly it is an important issue for those students who do.

Parents should also be aware that the increasing cognitive demands of high school curriculum might be a source of difficulty for students who previously may have experienced few, if any, academic challenges.

Findings from studies on gifted underachievement and general education dropouts can give us insights into the study of gifted dropouts. These studies suggest that ability, academic achievement, motivation, drug use, and school culture all can influence students’ dropout decisions. Since gifted students by definition possess strong academic abilities, would gifted learners who choose to leave school without a diploma report different reasons for their decision than general education students? With this question in mind, I began looking for gifted dropouts who were willing to share their stories and attempting to learn more about the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of highly able students failing to graduate from high school.

Through an initial and a follow-up interview, I have spoken so far with a half dozen gifted individuals who had dropped out of high school. These were five females and one male student, from four different states, ranging in age from 18 to 27. Two were Latina and the rest White.


Two themes related to individual differences appeared in the narratives of multiple participants. These included the following:

  • When specifically questioned, a number of individuals noted a particular dislike of, or difficulty with, coursework in mathematics. These same individuals contended elsewhere in the same interview that they thought all subjects were easy (or non-challenging).
  • In high school, some learners reported having relatively few close friends; they found that their age peers seemed to be concerned more with social interaction and less committed to learning or academic performance.

In addition, their schools’ organizational culture sometimes was not structured in a way that would keep these gifted learners enrolled.

  • Gifted students who dropped out viewed their high school classes as ‘more of the same’ and indicated they would have preferred learning something new.
  • Several students recalled a keenly felt realization of differences between the middle school and high school environments, which led to dissatisfaction with high school. In some cases a lack of gifted programming in high school made them no longer feel ‘special’ due to their gifted status, as they had in middle or elementary school.
  • In one case, individualized educational options were only available to the student if she officially stated her intention to drop out.
  • Students whose families frequently moved encountered repeated difficulties in transferring course credit across schools and were forced to repeat coursework they had completed elsewhere. Consistent with findings about dropouts in general education settings, family mobility was evident in most of the cases; few of the participants had remained in the same location throughout high school.

Parenting was discussed indirectly, because I was primarily curious to learn about school- and individual-level influences. In some cases parents apparently had offered little input about the student’s decision to drop out, while other parents actively supported the decision. Early family responsibilities affected two students. One participant at age 16 had entered what turned out to be an unsuccessful marriage as a means of escaping her unhappy home life; another was engaged at the age of 18. In both cases these responsibilities appear to have interfered with these young women’s education.

Most of those interviewed were completing a GED program or attending a four-year or community college, although not all had achieved success in college on their first try. For the two oldest respondents, one was completing a master’s degree, and the other had already obtained one. Notably, this oldest participant reported being satisfied with her non-traditional educational path. After dropping out at age 16, she completed a GED, a year of community college, a four-year degree, and a Master of Arts degree at a competitive public university by the time she turned 21. She noted that her classmates who had remained in high school were still undergraduates at the time she finished her master’s degree.

Implications for Parents

So, what can parents learn from these students’ experiences? It appears that some gifted learners may need extra help in mathematics, and all might benefit from parental assistance in coming to grips with the changing nature of curriculum between middle school, high school, and college. Help your children understand that during these school transitions, learning often progresses from a group-oriented approach in elementary school toward one that emphasizes individual performance in the higher grades. The approaches toward giftedness by schools change over time too, from a view that places emphasis on ability and potential in the early grades to one that takes into account prior academic achievements. Parents should also be aware that the increasing cognitive demands of high school curriculum might be a source of difficulty for students who previously may have experienced few, if any, academic challenges.

Several schools showed unwillingness to individualize educational plans and to offer flexible alternatives to traditional curricular tracks; these positions were at least partially responsible for some of these gifted learners’ decisions to drop out. This is consistent with other studies that have found a lack of acceleration or related curricular options available to most high-ability learners. The general lack of gifted education training and programming in secondary settings may also be partially responsible for these difficulties, as misconceptions abound about academic acceleration. Parents who desire to keep their children on track to a traditional high school diploma should strive to be aware of the regulations and options available at their child’s school and should carefully monitor their child’s progress toward this goal. Forming or joining a state or local advocacy organization (see sidebar) can be a great help in developing awareness of the experiences of other gifted students and parents in your local area.

Finally, parents should keep in mind that dropping out of high school is not the end of the world. The student’s education becomes a more winding path that is likely more difficult. Although it is not the traditional educational trajectory, in time, it still can lead to success in higher education and in life.

Michael S. Matthews, PhD

Michael Matthews is an assistant professor in the gifted education program at the University of South Florida in Tampa.


National Association for Gifted Children
State Affiliate Association Web sites

“Gifted students who drop out: New evidence from a Southeastern state,” by M. S. Matthews, Roeper Review, 28, 2006, 216–223

“Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high-achieving gifted students,” by D.B. McCoach and D. Siegle, Gifted Child Quarterly, 47(2), 2003, 144-154.

How to Parent so Children will Learn: Clear Strategies for Raising Happy, Achieving Children, by S. Rimm, Three Rivers, 1996