By Marguerite Kondracke
President and CEO of America's Promise Alliance

As the United States battles several threats including an economic crisis and a possible public health pandemic, it’s important to remember that we are experiencing a “silent epidemic” that poses the greatest threat to our long-term economic strength and even our national security.

Today only about half (53%) of the young people in our nation’s 50 largest cities graduate from high school, and in the time it takes to read this, another U.S. teenager will have dropped out. In fact, 1.2 million students drop out annually. That’s 7,000 each school day, one every 26 seconds. The statistics are even more startling for students of color—less than half graduate on time.

We see the real depth of this disparity when we compare urban schools with their suburban counterparts. On average, suburban schools report graduation rates that are 18 percentage points higher.

We can no longer afford to allow school success for millions of children to be determined by a zip code. Each city is different, but we know that students in our urban schools have challenges that affect their education like poverty, crime-ridden neighborhoods and schools with fewer resources and experienced teachers. Although our urban schools only educate one in eight children, they produce 25 percent of the nation’s dropouts.

All American taxpayers have a stake in the dropout crisis. Dropouts are more than twice as likely to live in poverty and more likely to be incarcerated, rely on public assistance and live without health insurance. Simply cutting the dropout rate in half would generate an additional $45 billion in federal tax revenues and cost savings.

The report Cities in Crisis recently released by America’s Promise Alliance, revealed that dropouts were the only group of wage earners to see their income decline over the last 30 years. Even during good economic times, only 40 percent of dropouts are steadily employed.

Not all the news is bad. Cities in Crisis also found that some cities have actually increased graduation rates over the last decade. And over the past year, through our Dropout Prevention Summits, we’ve seen entire communities come together to help kids stay in school. We’ve also recently seen a confirmation from our federal lawmakers that education is a cornerstone of our economy with record investment levels to help create a sustainable recovery.

These are all important steps, but to really turn this tide, we need to address the needs of the whole child. That means more than just strong schools. We also need more effective after-school programs, mentors, better health care, good nutrition and of course more parental involvement.

Simply put—our economy will never truly recover until our “Cities in Crisis” become a Graduation Nation.

Marguerite Kondracke is President and CEO of America's Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership alliance committed to improving the lives of young people.