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Raising the Dropout Age

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There are no silver bullets to solve the dropout crisis and blunt instruments often go too far. But when President Obama in his State of the Union address urged states to raise the legal dropout age from 16 to when students graduate or turn 18, we cheered.

Almost a decade ago, we worked with Hart Research to listen to the perspectives of dropouts all across America to understand their life stories, challenges, hopes and solutions to keep more students on the graduation track. Among many findings catalogued in the report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called The Silent Epidemic, we discovered something alarming.

In places like Baltimore, dropouts described how they "signed out of high school" forever on their 16th birthday. We soon learned that the majority of states permitted young people to drop out of high school at the age of 16 and that many of these laws had been written 100 years ago when young people left school to work in factories and on farms. The economy of the early 20th century did not demand a high school diploma or college for many jobs, as it does today.

We also discovered a study co-authored by the now Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, with two compelling findings -- because of compulsory schooling laws, roughly 25 percent of potential dropouts remain in high school and will increase their earnings by more than 7 percent with an additional year of schooling. The more than one million students who drop out every year translate to hundreds of billions of dollars in costs to the nation. Updating state laws to reflect new market realities made good economic sense.

Nearly every developed country in the world has a compulsory schooling requirement and the United States is no exception. Those who have voiced strong opposition to the president's call to raise the dropout age might consider that most states already determined more than a century ago that a compulsory school age law was a good idea that reflects our nation's core belief that every child should get an education. The only issue is whether these laws should be updated to reflect the fact that, in today's economy, a high school diploma and some postsecondary education are prerequisites for most jobs.

Most governors agree and the wave of updated laws has created good momentum. About a dozen states have raised the legal dropout age over the last decade, now ensuring that a majority of states do not permit young people to leave school on their 16th birthday. States such as Indiana and New Hampshire have had strong leadership from governors and state legislators, with the stories of how they updated their laws to reflect 21st century realities featured in our report The Case for Reform: Raising the Compulsory School Attendance Age. Even in the 18 states that have not updated their laws, such as Alaska, Kentucky, Maryland and Wyoming, legislation has been introduced to do so.

Some states have gone further, such as Tennessee -- a state that leads the nation in boosting high school graduation rates 15 percentage points over the last decade -- by linking an increase in the compulsory school attendance age with suspension of driving privileges. States are aligning their policies with the recommendations from the National Conference of State Legislatures Task Force on School Dropout Prevention and Recovery and the Civic Marshall Plan to Build a Grad Nation.

If the research and economic arguments are not overwhelming enough, the voices of dropouts seal the deal. In the largest national survey of high school dropouts, more than 80 percent reported that dropping out was the worst decision of their lives. Most wanted schools, teachers and parents to expect more of them and provide more supports along the way. Ironically, the low expectations from those around them were in stark contrast to the high expectations dropouts initially had for themselves.

Laws reflect our values. Imagine the signal a state law sends to a young person that permits them to drop out at the age of 16. Such laws bless the act of dropping out, while dropouts later view the permission as a curse, as they struggle to find work and raise their families.

Updates to these laws are not a single-stop solution, but an important strategic, economic and symbolic step that states can take. So, let's give children the birthday present they deserve and so desperately need. Coupled with other proven reforms and supports, raising the compulsory school-age law is a powerful tool that helps stem the dropout tide.

John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and author of The Case for Reform: Raising the Compulsory School Attendance Age, The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, and many other reports on the high school dropout epidemic.