Neighborhood disadvantage and school dropout: A multilevel analysis of mediating contexts


Donnelly, Louis (2015). Neighborhood disadvantage and school dropout: A multilevel analysis of mediating contexts.


Prior research has shown that children’s residence in high poverty neighborhoods increases their risk of high school dropout. However, the mechanisms through which neighborhood socio-economic disadvantage exerts influence on educational attainment are poorly understood. The current study uses nationally representative survey data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to estimate the extent to which school, neighborhood, and peer group contexts mediate the effect of neighborhood disadvantage on high school dropout. The conceptual framework adopted integrates theoretical frameworks of school dropout with theories of social isolation, social organization, and resource-based theories of neighborhood effects. Mediating contexts examined include the resources, disciplinary policies, and structural characteristics of the schools youth attend; multiple dimensions of social organization in the neighborhoods youth reside; and the degree to which youths’ closest friends are emotionally, behaviorally, and cognitively disengaged from school. Few of the hypothesized school, neighborhood and peer group contexts are found to substantially mediate the effect of neighborhood disadvantage on high school dropout. Holding all mediating contexts constant, neighborhood disadvantage remains strongly associated with school dropout, including in school-fixed models, which compare youth who attend the same school but reside in different neighborhoods. Contrary to theory, neighborhood social cohesion and informal social control are higher in poor neighborhoods and not associated with school dropout. Peer group school disengagement varies little across neighborhood context after adjusting for individual and family socio-economic characteristics. Neighborhood-level intergenerational closure – the extent to which parents in the neighborhood remain in communication with the parents of their children’s friends – is substantially lower in poor neighborhoods, explaining around 25% of the neighborhood disadvantage effect on school dropout. However, the effect of neighborhood intergenerational closure is less pronounced for African American and Hispanic youth. Considerable variation in direct and indirect effects of neighborhood disadvantage is also observed across demographic sub-groups. Findings suggest that the socio-economic composition of local residential contexts influences secondary educational outcomes independent of the schools youth attend. Moreover, results challenge the universal applicability of traditional theoretical models of neighborhood effects, which assert that the poor educational performance of youth from poor neighborhoods is best explained by disorganized community environments and deviant youth sub-cultures. Given these findings, public policy that reverses rising socio-economic residential segregation patterns is strongly recommended. Future research should more closely examine how heterogeneity within and between school, neighborhood, and peer group contexts interact to undermine the educational attainment of youth from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.



Social work Poor families Dropouts Social sciences Concentrated disadvantage Mediating Neighborhood disadvantage Neighborhood effects Peer groups School dropout Schools

Reference Type


Book Title

Social Work


Donnelly, Louis

Series Author(s)

Akincigil, Ayse

Year Published


Volume Number





Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

City of Publication

New Brunswick, New Jersey





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