Raising the School Dropout Age To 18: Some Key Points To Consider

President Obama’s recent suggestion that all states establish age 18 as the legal dropout age has generated lots of discussion and raised plenty of questions – including those posed by readers of Parents.com. As this issue is complex, I’ve spent some time sorting through the key points. Here’s where I’m at right now.

What exactly is the proposal?: The proposal is that every state adopt the following policy: youth cannot dropout of high school until age 18 (they can of course graduate at a younger age). Keep in mind that, at this point, it is a suggestion – states establish their own laws. Some in fact have adopted age 18 as the legal dropout age (at last count it appears that 20 states currently do so). Others use 16 or 17 as the legal age at which a youth can dropout without completing the requirements for graduation. Some, like New Jersey, are currently debating the issue. So if you are a parent it’s worth your time getting familiar with the current policy in your state – and potentially what’s on the table for discussion.

What is meant by dropout? One thing that can be confusing is determining what is considered schooling. Every state establishes what it considers to be acceptable practice and many allow a variety of alternatives to “traditional” high school. For example, a given state may include public high school, private high school, trade/vocational schools, and home schooling/private tutoring as equally valid options. The issue being discussed is the age at which a student can legally dropout of any approved educational process prior to meeting the requirements for completing that process (which would be a high school diploma or equivalent). Again, right now, it’s most important for you to learn about the policy in your home state – that’s what will apply to you.

Why establish 18 as the dropout age? The whole idea here is to find a way to make sure that every youth successfully completes their high school education (again whether it is in a traditional or alternative setting). Youth who drop out are less likely to have a job, will earn less, and are more likely to go to jail. Sure, some kids who drop out do fine, and some kids who graduate don’t – but we’re talking about some pretty strong research findings which show that, as a group, dropouts fare much worse than graduates. So the thinking here is that by ensuring that kids continue their education until age 18, they will be more likely to get their degree.

Will raising the age to 18 achieve this? This is a matter of debate right now. Some argue it will – some say it hasn’t had an impact in the states where the age has been raised. As a researcher, it’s not clear to me that we have good enough data right now to make definitive claims. The analysis I’d like to see is a solid longitudinal study with a “before/after” comparison within states (comparing across states is complicated because there are different issues in different states that affect graduation rates). Maybe it’s out there, but I haven’t seen a definitive study yet. So right now I’d say that this issue is far from resolved.

Why would it work? Plain and simple, the hope is that by keeping kids in school longer, they will be more likely to complete their degree. Some argue that the lower age limits (like 16 and 17) are out of date – 16-year-olds with no high school degree are not going to find much in the way of work options in today’s society. Others suggest that 18 is a more reasonable age for kids (and their parents) to make a life decision – and maybe they will be more motivated to get their degree at 18 versus 16 or 17. And it is also sometimes suggested that raising the age to 18 will put collective pressure on everyone – parents and schools alike – to not let kids give up to early.

Why wouldn’t it work? Some argue that the age limit is arbitrary – kids who aren’t interested in school at 16 won’t be more interested at 17 or 18. Others worry that an older age limit could result in a disproportionate allocation of attention and resources to kids in school who don’t want to be there – at the expense of those who do want to be there.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’m still sorting through the issues. But if I had to decide today, I’d be in favor of establishing age 18 as the dropout age. Why? Because I hate the idea of giving up on kids. I hate the idea that we all don’t have the expectation that kids will graduate. I hate the idea that a school can watch a kid walk out the doors without a diploma.I hate the idea that some parents don’t think it’s important that kids get a high school diploma. I hate the idea that some kids are so disengaged that they want to quit school by age 16 or 17. I hate the idea that some kids struggle with issues such as ADHD or dyslexia and don’t have access to proper psychoeducational intervention that could make school less difficult for them. Simply raising the dropout age to 18 won’t change all of that. But it could be a catalyst for us to reconsider our investment in education. It could help orient our discussions around the reasons why so many kids are not engaged in school. It could prompt us to continue to brainstorm about alternative educations that could engage kids – including kids who do not get appropriate interventions for underlying problems that could interfere with the learning process. And to me, most importantly, it could be a reminder that we need to also focus intensively on the early years of education and make sure kids get the platform they need to develop the skills and attitude necessary to be engaged in school, and succeed in school.

Image of graduation cap and diploma via Shutterstock.com


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  1. by Aleta

    On February 10, 2012 at 10:08 am

    I am a drop out, I went back and got my diploma and went on to college but I wish someone had tried harder to keep me in school. Picked me up for truancy, or had a Social Worker show up at my house to scare me back into school. I missed out on alot by leaving school WAY TOO YOUNG!!

    I did fine in the career world but I do believe it affected my ability to form relationships, well healthy relationships. School is not just about learning the cirriculum but abotu learning who you are and who you want to be, that is hard to understand when you are not with peers!

    RASIE THE AGE!! and make tougher punishments for children and parents who do not adhere to it!

  2. by It won't work, period

    On May 16, 2012 at 11:24 am

    You can force a kid to go to school, but you really can’t make him/her do any schoolwork, they’ll just drop out mentally.