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High school can be difficult for a number of reasons. It can be academically challenging, highly stressful as college preparation ramps up, and often includes a lot of social pressure to act or do as the “in crowd” does. All in all, there is a lot on high school students’ shoulders during this period. Unfortunately, this can lead to dropouts.

Students will leave high school without finishing for a number of reasons, and many of these overlap with the reasons teens experiment with drugs. Feeling like they don’t belong, feeling immense stress, feeling depressed — each of these can push a student over the edge. With this in mind, we decided to look further into how high school dropout rates correlate with drug use across the U.S. Read on to learn more about our study — we start with a high-level overview of the findings, then discuss each type of drug use in detail (in order of highest to lowest correlation).

Table of Contents


For this analysis, we used data on rates of adult and youth drug use from the 2017 Federal SAMHSA survey. We compared these rates across U.S. states to the rate of students who do not complete high school in each state, which comes from the Department of Education. We used a standard correlation calculation, where “r” is on a -1 to 1 scale, with 1 being a direct correlation.

High School Dropout Rate in Each State

Map showing high school dropout rates by state

First, we looked at the high school dropout rate in each U.S. state. We found notable variance in these rates across the nation. New Mexico has the highest dropout rate (28.9%), followed by the District of Columbia (26.8%) and Oregon (23.3%). The states with the lowest are Iowa (9.0%), New Jersey (9.5%), and Tennessee (10.2%).

Correlation Between Drug Use and High School Dropout Rates

Chart showing correlation between dropout rates and drug use

Next, we looked at how the high school dropout rate is correlated with the rate of drug use across U.S. states. Some types of drug use, such as adult marijuana use (r = 0.4368) or youth illicit drug use (r = 0.3965), show a notable correlation. Other types of drug use show less correlation, or even show a negative correlation.

Correlation Between Adult Marijuana Use and High School Dropout Rates

Next, we looked further into the correlation between high school dropout rates and specific types of drug use. The strongest correlation we found is with adult marijuana use (r = 0.4368). As you can see on the scatter plot, many states follow a trend of having a higher rate of adult marijuana use if they show a higher rate of high school dropouts.

Correlation Between Adult Illicit Drug Use (Non-Marijuana) and Dropout Rates

Then, we looked at adult illicit drug use (not including marijuana), which shows a correlation of 0.4204. The District of Columbia notably shows a high rate of adult illicit drug use (non-marijuana) in addition to a high rate of high school dropouts.

Correlation Between Adult Illicit Drug Use and Dropout Rates

Next, we measured the correlation between adult illicit drug use (including marijuana) and dropout rates. We found a strong link between these rates (r = 0.4160), which is apparent on the scatter plot above.

Correlation Between Youth Illicit Drug Use and Dropout Rates

Youth drug use and high school dropout rates also show a connection, as one might expect. Illicit drug use (including marijuana) shows a correlation of 0.3965 with dropouts.

Correlation Between Youth Illicit Drug Use (Non-Marijuana) and Dropout Rates

Next, we looked at youth illicit drug use (excluding marijuana) and how that trends with high school completion. We found a notable correlation of 0.3965 between these two rates across U.S. states.

Correlation Between Youth Marijuana Use and Dropout Rates

Our analysis of youth marijuana use showed similar results. We found a correlation of 0.3160 between this rate and high school dropout rates.

Correlation Between Adult Cocaine Use and Dropout Rates

Finally, we looked at the rate of cocaine use. When it comes to adult use of this drug, there’s a notable trend of dropout rates being higher where adult cocaine is more prevalent (r = 0.3136).

Wrapping Up

No matter how strong of a mathematical link we found from our analysis, we know that an environment of drug use is not ideal for high school students. We hope this study will continue the conversation around these topics.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one might be struggling with substance abuse, learn more about addiction and how we can help.


  • 2017 SAMHSA
  • U.S. Department of Education


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