Scot Lehigh

Raise the high school drop out age

ARNE DUNCAN is on the line, rattling off numbers like an auctioneer.

As in 82,230, the number of Massachusetts kids enrolled in ninth grade in the fall of 2006. And 67,973, the number of seniors four years later.

If a single class loses 14,347 over four years, says Duncan, “That tells me that every single year, Massachusetts is losing 14,000 students from its schools to its streets.’’


More detailed state data paint a less pessimistic picture: In the last three complete school years, an average of 8,258 high-school students — or about 2.8 percent — has dropped out annually.

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Still, that’s a pressing problem. It’s why the federal secretary of education is right to declare that Massachusetts needs “a greater sense of urgency’’ and “a more sophisticated, comprehensive approach’’ toward dropout prevention.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on every state to require students to stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. Currently, most states don’t. Nineteen, including Massachusetts, have a dropout age of 16, while another 11 set the bar at 17.

Now, everyone agrees that raising the legal dropout age is not by itself the whole answer. Indeed, a 2009 policy brief by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy notes that having a dropout age of 18 didn’t necessarily put a state in the top cluster for high graduation rates or low dropout rates. Yet one scholarly study, which compared students old enough to drop out earlier in the year with those who didn’t reach the legal age until later in the year, did find an important result: Compulsory attendance laws were effective in keeping some students in school. Meanwhile, on the state-as-laboratories-of-democracy front, New Hampshire, which in 2007 upped its dropout age from 16 to 18 as part of a broader anti-dropout effort, has seen impressive results.

“It is an important step in the right direction,’’ said Duncan. “There are no good jobs out there in the legal economy for high school dropouts now.’’


Further, dropping out puts a teenager on a rocky life path, one marked by struggles, setbacks, and, in many cases, pathologies. “When you look at unemployment rates, poverty rates, incarceration rates, all of the things that have huge negative impacts and huge costs to society are all tied to high school dropouts,’’ Duncan adds. One example: Dropouts make up 70 percent of this state’s jail and prison population.

So where is the Patrick administration on hiking our dropout age from 16 to 18? Rhetorically supportive, but cautious about cost considerations in tight budgetary times.

“Any strategy that leads with raising the mandatory attendance age must be accompanied by a second-chance system and various supports that students will need if they are to stay in school and succeed,’’ says Paul Reville, the state secretary of education. Or, as Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senate chairwoman of the Education Committee, pithily puts it: “It can’t just be bottoms in chairs. It has to be hearts there, too.’’

In his recent State of the State speech, Governor Patrick proposed spending an additional $10 million for programs with a strong anti-dropout component, targeted for the state’s gateway cities. However, the administration hasn’t even calculated what a full-blown statewide anti-dropout effort would cost.

In tight fiscal times, proponents of more state spending often take refuge in litotic legerdemain: The state can’t afford not to do this. But in the real world, the money has to come from somewhere. So, where? Well, in the next year or two, the state will be auctioning off licenses for three casinos and a slots parlor, which will bring in some $280 million. Once the casinos are running, the state expects $300 million to $400 million in yearly revenue from them. Although the gaming law established a framework to divvy up those latter revenues, those decisions can be revisited.


In sum, Obama and Duncan are right that the time has come to raise the dropout age. Certainly Massachusetts, a state that makes its living on its brains, should be doubling down on dropout prevention.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.