Change the Dropout Age?

One of the interesting new proposals designed to get more high school students prepared for college and life after school is to raise the dropout age. After all, if dropping out of high school is basically the path to dead-end job, why do we allow students drop out at 16?

In his State of the Union address last month President Obama urged states to increase their dropout ages to 18. It’s a simple idea, but would it change anything? Probably not, argues Anna Swenson in USA Today. As she explains :

This is a neat thesis by the President’s administration, but the equation is not nearly so concise. Even if students are required by law to stay in school until they are 18, there is no guarantee that extra time spent in school will make them more prepared to get a job or attend college. For unmotivated students to be required by law to attend class not only robs them of their autonomy as citizens, but is also unfair to already-beleaguered teachers. If a student is in class because he is required by state law to be there, that doesn’t mean he is learning. He is probably far less motivated to participate in a class the state requires of him than he is in one he chooses to attend.

Legally compelling all students to remain in school longer, without making any serious changes in the ways schools operate, is decidedly unlikely to make anymore better able to succeed in college or the workforce.

Most American states have a dropout age of at least 16. In the last decade six states have increased the age students have to reach before they can leave school. Some 16 states, including New Hampshire, South Dakota, Hawaii, Indiana, Florida, California, and the District of Columbia, already have increased their minimum dropout ages to 18.

But according to a research study published last year by scholars at the University of Georgia, it doesn’t really matter:

The compulsory school attendance age had a small relationship with the timing of dropout but no meaningful relationship with high school graduation. Also, no discernible pattern of reductions in drop-out rates was evident for states that raised their attendance ages.

There’s no evidence that students in states with higher dropout ages are any more successful than students from states where they can leave at 16.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer