Does Changing the Dropout Age Matter?

Among the many policy proposals in the president's state of the union last night, you may have missed his one-liner, urging states to adopt a dropout age of 18, with a goal of reducing the dropout rate. Right now, in most states students must attend school until they are 16 or 17. However, even before last night's speech, several states were considering legislation to raise the dropout age, like Wyoming and Kentucky. Many states—19 back in 2009—already had raised the age for compulsory attendance to 18. With so many states doing it, and the president pushing the policy, presumably it works, right?

Well, not exactly. In 2009, the Rennie Center in Massachusetts came out with a report investigating the impact of the policy. Their conclusion? Focus on other policies first.

The comprehensive report showed a lack of evidence that changing the age for compulsory school attendance had a major impact on the dropout rate. Based on 2004-05 data, it showed that of the ten states with the highest graduation rates, only three had a dropout age of 18. Over at Kentucky's Bluegrass Institute, Richard Innes updated the Rennie Center report with 2008-09 dropout data, and found that while some states with a dropout age of 18 have have better graduation rates than the national average, others, like Utah, California and Nebraska, do not. 

Compulsory attendance "is not a silver bullet," explains Chad d'Entremont, the Rennie Center's executive director. Instead, he argued that raising the dropout age "needs to be accompanied by a host of supports that address the root causes." d'Entremont pointed to options like night classes for students who felt a need to work while in school and a bigger emphasis on goal-setting and counseling so that alienated students had at least on adult in the school they could turn to.

To really lower the dropout rate, d'Entremont argued for early childhood care, like more pre-k and full-day kindergarten, and a better way to monitor which kids are likely to be at high-risk of dropping out—and provide resources in elementary and middle school. "We need to focus more on prevention as opposed to intervention," he said, explaining that "changes that occur at the very tail end of a student's career" are least likely to bring change.

The trouble, of course, many of those elements, like better guidance counselors, are hard to implement at a policy level. The federal and even state governments cannot dictate how schools are run day-to-day. And with widespread cuts to education, many schools are scrambling to get by, rather than pushing to expand professional development for their staff and outreach to parents. But even those schools and districts that are innovating right now are doing so on their own—it's hard to legislate on-the-ground work.

Still d'Entremont was optimistic—even about the potential impact of Obama's call to raise the dropout age. "I think an argument can be made that their is symbolic value in identifying as a goal what we hope all students achieve," he said, noting that education has only recently become a major policy topic that gets addressed in state of the unions.

"That really hasn't been a regular occurrence," he said.