Sorry, You’re Not Allowed to Drop Out. Please Resume Learning.

In the State of the Union address last week, President Obama called on all states to require students to stay in school until they turn 18 or graduate. Here’s the reason he gave: “When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.”

While it’s true that dropping out of high school sharply reduces your lifetime earnings and is linked to health problems, crime, and general unhappiness, the evidence in favor of raising the dropout age is extremely weak.

Right now some states allow you to drop out at 16 and others insist you stay until 18, though those states have lots of exceptions that allow you to drop out earlier (for instance, if you get a job or your parents say it’s OK). Philip Oreopoulos, a University of Toronto economist, argues in this paper that dropouts are lousy at thinking ahead:

Immediate costs from schooling are more important for adolescents that tend to focus on the present. Forgoing substantial gains from additional schooling is more consistent with a model where adolescents ignore or heavily discount consequences of their decisions. This possibility is also more in line with recent studies in neurology and psychology that suggest adolescents lack abstract-reasoning skills and are predisposed to risky behavior.

The 17-year-old who thinks math is a drag doesn’t know that sticking around for another year would increase his annual earnings by nearly $8,000. Or maybe it seems like an entirely reasonable price to pay (assuming he’s poring over the data, which is doubtful). Therefore, the thinking goes, let’s force him to stay in school for his own good and he’ll thank us later.


But a paper published last year compares the data between states with different dropout ages. The authors, Rebecca Landis and Amy Reschly, of the University of Georgia, found it didn’t make much difference, if any:

Despite the growing interest and support for raising the maximum CSAA [compulsory school-attendance age] as a means of dropout prevention, results of this study do not lend support for the efficacy of this policy initiative. Although we found a small relationship between the CSAA and when students left, we also found that completion rates did not vary between states with different CSAAs. In addition, states that raised their CSA requirements did not necessarily experience a greater decline in dropout than states that maintained CSA requirements of 16.

Likewise, a 2002 study found that when Texas and Kansas raised their dropout age, high-school completion rates stayed nearly the same. How can that be? Here’s how: In the Topeka Unified School District, truancy rates shot up 33 percent. Those kids just didn’t come. And because truancy enforcement is lax, it didn’t matter what the law said.

A 2010 study by Duke University researchers was also skeptical, the authors writing that “proponents of the policy change can show only modest effects at best.” A report from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy came to a similar conclusion: “Our review of research revealed little evidence to support the idea that raising the compulsory age to 18 decreases dropout rates and increases graduation rates.”

There may be strategies that will persuade teenagers of the importance of finishing high school, but this doesn’t appear to be one of them, and it’s odd that such a dubious idea would attract such a high-profile advocate.

(The mention of the proposal to raise the dropout age starts at 21:05 in the video above.)

UPDATE: Richard Innes of the Bluegrass Institute in Kentucky e-mailed a link to his recent analysis of states that have upped the dropout age to 18. The bottom line: “Six of these age 18 dropout states actually have shown a DECLINE in graduation rate performance since they enacted this policy in law.” His whole post is here and it includes a fun, colorful graph.

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