College Guide


February 20, 2012 5:49 PM Change the Dropout Age?

By Daniel Luzer

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


  • Anonymous on February 21, 2012 6:49 PM:

    Young men and women leave school because they become parents, become sick, need to earn full-time wages or are scared of bullies and gangs. These problems have nothing to do with how old they are, and they won't go away by spending more time in classrooms.

  • Michael Butler on September 04, 2012 1:33 PM:

    @Anonymous, far, far more plausible reasons exist than the four you listed. Arm chair quarterbacks enjoy *trying* to express their narrow sided opinion veiled by internet anonymity, but fail to offer another path. Mr. Luzer is offering one, of many, solutions. The complexities at issues greatly exceed your simplistic analysis. Failed logic, my friend.

    I dropped out of high school, and the embarrassment and shame I felt are incapable of proper description. My path to college was difficult because of miss-information. The social stigma improperly associated to the uneducated is painful and misplaced. While societal misunderstanding of the legal profession may think otherwise, I'm proud to have earned a Juris Doctorate, and as such, it is moralistically imperative that I show and mentor other HS drop-outs because believing in yourself and working hard will overcome any of the reasons you listed. Three colleagues graduated along with myself each were HS drop outs due to the reasons you listed.

  • Rumadyet on November 23, 2012 2:21 AM:

    Sorry some of the reasons are not valid, I can tell you that some of these students see that it is not helping them, their teachers came late to class not prepared, not focused, or drunk or messing with the female or male students, all true stories and I got sick of it, I had two daughters and at 16, they took the test, and went to college at 16, the best thing they did. Did they graduate, NO, but there SAT were great, and high school was a waste, We need to fix high school. Seriously I beg everyone to be a student for a week, how about just a day. Most people could not make it, you will see what we are talking about. I really think, a parent should go back to school and sit with the students.