Raising the Age for Students, Raising the Bar for School Systems

This week, our traditional students returned to school and most were excited to be back in the classroom. Unfortunately, there is a group of students who are simply waiting for their 16th birthday. This is the minimum legal age for students to drop out of school. While serving as Superintendent in Catawba County, North Carolina, we began to have discussions around the dropout age. I was pleased to see that the conversations continued after I left, and the two neighboring city systems – Hickory City Schools and Newton-Conover City Schools– agreed to pilot raising the dropout age from 16-years-old to 18-years-old. This change seems only logical, 16-year-old students are not ready to make that kind of life-changing decision. This is also being recognized by the state in other areas. The justice system appears to be moving to increase the age of when a person can be charged as an adult. Why shouldn’t schools move in this direction too?

To reiterate my point that a 16-year-old student is not ready to make that kind of life-altering decision, one MIT study found one-fourth of potential dropouts remain in school because of compulsory attendance laws. The same study also found that the overall enrollment rate among 16-year-olds is lower in states that allow students to dropout at 16. Research shows that those who stay in school earn at least 10% more on average.

Raising the dropout age will not solve all problems and is not a panacea. Raising the dropout age will require schools to address the issues that led to students dropping out. These issues include boredom, frustration and their academic struggles. School systems will need to create programs for these students. Here in New Hanover County Schools, we have implemented programs such as the Career Academy at the Mosley Performance Learning Center and the JC Roe Center to help address these and other concerns.

I believe the benefits of staying in school outweigh any potential cost. I urge our local leaders to support increasing the graduation age. I would welcome NHCS joining the current pilot and increase the dropout age from 16 to 18.

Dropout facts (Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy)

• Dropouts are less likely to have a job and those who do, earn less, on average, than high school graduates.
• Dropouts are more likely to depend on public assistance.
• Dropouts, especially young men, are more likely to be incarcerated.
• Dropouts are less likely to marry and are more likely to become single parents.
• Dropouts are less likely to be actively engaged in civic activities, including voting in local and national elections and volunteering for civic organizations.

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