Obama Plan to Raise Dropout Age Draws Mixed Reviews

President Obama’s call to keep high school students in school until graduation or age 18 may support his college completion goals but is not, by itself, a cure-all to the high school dropout problem, analysts say.

“It’s a proposal that already intrigues many states,” said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States. “But it will have a marginal effect on its own,” she told Diverse, adding that it may succeed only if states and schools can “make school more meaningful for students.”

In his annual State of the Union address, the president said no state should allow students to leave school at age 16 or 17, prior to high school graduation. More than half of the states permit students to leave school before age 18, before they would earn a diploma.

“When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better,” Obama said. “We also know that, when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma.”

The dropout issue is particularly acute for students of color, based on data from the National Council of State Legislatures. Among all U.S. youth in 2008, 18 percent of Hispanics, 15 percent of American Indians and 10 percent of African-Americans were not attending high school and did not have a high school credential, the council says. The corresponding rate for White and Asian youths was less than 5 percent.

But even in states with age 18 compulsory attendance laws, it is difficult to enforce the policy, according to Zinth. “It’s not a silver bullet, though it could have some impact,” she said.

Yet states can take other steps to stem the tide of dropouts, she said. In at least three states, districts with low high school graduation rates must submit to state intervention and a collaborative process to develop effective strategies to keep students in school.

However, only 21 states formally require students to stay in school until age 18 or high school graduation, she said.

While it is unlikely the president would ask Congress to require states to raise the age of compulsory school attendance, some analysts said Obama is using the presidential “bully pulpit” to seek changes at a time when bipartisan consensus is elusive on K-12 policy at the national level.

For example, Obama’s plan comes as the White House and Congress have been unable to agree on changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, said Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. He noted that the age-18 proposal is one way for the president to lobby for changes that don’t require congressional approval.

“It’s critical that we look at K-12 more closely,” Flores told Diverse. “But I don’t know that there is the political will in Washington to do that.”

Requiring students to stay in high school until age 18 also may improve their job prospects, since high school dropouts are less likely to have skills desired by employers, he said. “It can help the economy in general,” he added, and the plan fits with administration commitments to focus on careers and job training. In his address, the president also called for a more streamlined job training system to help move the unemployed into stable jobs.

Even if more states prevent more 16- and 17-year-olds from dropping out of school, other K-12 challenges remain—including inequity in resources between low-income and more affluent schools, Flores noted.

Nonetheless, the White House proposal fits with the administration’s stated goals to increase the number of young Americans with college degrees, said Laura Bornfreund, senior education policy analyst at the New America Foundation.

“The administration has been focusing on the number of students going on to some type of higher education,” she said, and stemming the tide of dropouts promotes that goal.

Nonetheless, it’s not clear whether the administration would—or could—take action to force states to raise the compulsory attendance age. Despite the high-profile comments in the State of the Union address, the president “hasn’t announced anything the federal government would be doing” to support that goal, Bornfreund said.

“One of the easiest things to do is to call on states to increase the time that students need to stay in school,” she told Diverse. Yet just drawing national attention to the issue may bring new thinking. Since the speech, lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation to prevent students under age 18 from dropping out, Zinth said.

The New Jersey state Senate just approved a bill to raise the age of compulsory attendance, and states as diverse as Minnesota, Massachusetts and Kentucky are discussing it. “It seems to be a path that a lot of states are going down,” she added.