“Study links oil fracking to higher dropout rates,” reads headline from Grand Forks Herald education reporter Jennifer Johnson.
“Fracking increased the high school dropout rates among teenage males more than females from 2000 to 2013, according to the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research,” reports Johnson. “For every 0.1 percentage point increase in the male oil and gas employment rate due to fracking, the dropout rate among male teens increased by about 0.3 to 0.35 percentage points, the study stated.”
That’s provocative stuff, but this line may have been the most telling of Johnson’s report (emphasis mine): “Few school officials in districts heavily affected by the boom were available to comment on the study, and others said they didn’t feel comfortable making the connection with dropout rates.”
It’s easy to understand why educators contacted by Johnson didn’t want to make that connection. That’s because the connection, for any thoughtful person, is a fallacy.
Drawing a connection between fracking and high school dropouts is more than a little silly. It’s not the fracking, per se, that’s causing the dropouts. It’s the direct and indirect economic opportunities created by shale energy development made possible by fracking.
That’s the fallacy. Just because two things are correlated – higher dropout rates in areas of fracking-aided energy development – doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship.
Really, you could remove fracking from this equation and probably find a correlation between high school dropouts and any boom in relatively high-paying jobs for low-skill workers.
Like construction jobs, for instance. I’ll bet just about any sort of a boom in construction – whether it’s driven by energy development or agriculture prices or government policy – correlates to marginal increases in high school dropout rates, particularly among males. That there are teenagers who might feel more comfortable working, earning $15 per hour which no doubt seems like a lot to a 17 year old kid, as opposed to sitting in algebra class is hardly news.
Is it wise for them to drop out of high school? Of course not. But is this a surprising phenomena? Not at all. And hey, at least they’re working. That’s better than dropping out and going on welfare.
Unfortunately, the response to this study (helped along by shallow reporting like Johnson’s) is probably going to result in a lot of people – particularly those opposed to oil development – claiming that “fracking increases high school dropouts.”
Technically true? Yes. But is that the whole story? Absolutely not.