Raise the Dropout Age

Governor Patrick’s plan is right on the money

Whether they are entering a college like Harvard or diving straight into a job, teenagers’ high-school graduations are among the proudest days of their lives. Unfortunately, too many Massachusetts students drop out of high school before reaching this milestone—a sad effect of the state’s policy to mandate education only until age 16. At least 15 states, however, have adopted a minimum dropout age of 18, netting diplomas for a vastly larger population. Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 recently proposed such an increase here, and we join him in his call for a better education for all Bay State teens.

Although many upper high-school courses may not be relevant to a student’s plans in the here-and-now, they still contribute to his or her personal growth. A 16-year-old high-school dropout may already have the skills for a job, but his or her worldview and even capacity as an American citizen would be severely limited without studying staples like American history or basic physics. It is also very possible that a dropout would want to move on to bigger and better things as he or she ages. The same 16-year-old may someday want to turn a job in construction into a career in architecture, and yet lack the necessary background.

By no means, however, should students feel like they are mired in a substandard high school. It is our responsibility to the students who stay on to deliver the best possible experience. Public education always has room for improvement, and there should be vocational school alternatives readily available for those students who are looking toward such post-graduation careers. Public education certainly cannot improve if students are allowed to give up on it.

Sixteen is also an arbitrary and inappropriate age at which to make an unarguably life-altering decision. Two years can make all the difference in a child’s intellectual and moral growth and the development of his or her passions. For the same reason, 16-year-olds are restricted from drinking, gambling, or enlisting in the army—all privileges that require higher-than-average maturity. To raise the dropout age might be paternalistic, but such a move is as warranted as the many other legal age restrictions.

Furthermore, staying in school longer pays enormous dividends down the road. Most economists agree that more schooling leads to better wages later in life. A high-school education is a crucial investment for any child, even those who are only looking to support their family as soon as possible. We sympathize with students in this predicament, but we also believe that requiring them to remain enrolled greatly expands their earning potential over the full course of their lives.

Although we realize this plan will require time and money, it will be well worth the returns that students and the state receive in return. With a more complete education, more Massachusetts high schoolers will fly just as high throughout life as they do when they receive their diplomas.