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Raise the Dropout Age or Let Them Go?

Per the "Let Them Go" debate: does research have anything to say about the effects of the dropout age on subsequent life outcomes? In "Would More Compulsory Schooling Help Disadvantaged Youth? Evidence From Recent Changes to School-Leaving Laws," economist Philip Oreopoulos examines this question. Here's an excerpt from the abstract:

This paper uses these recent changes [in the school leaving age] in order to estimate the effects of further compulsory schooling. The results suggest that more restrictive laws reduced dropout rates, increased college enrollment, and improved career outcomes. Some caution is warranted, since focusing on recent law changes leads to higher imprecision. However, generally, the consistent findings in previous studies suggest that compulsory high school at later ages can benefit disadvantaged youth.

How large of a wage bump do students receive for staying in school for an additional year?

If we convert estimated annual earnings gains into lifetime gains, we see that a year of compulsory schooling increased lifetime wealth by an average of about 10 percent, including the revenue lost as a result of not working during school.

Increasing the school leaving age also decreases the dropout rate and increases post-secondary attendance:

States that increased the school leaving age above 16 witnessed an increase in average years of schooling for 20-29 year-olds by approximately 0.13 years, while high school dropout rates fell by about 1.4 percentage points. Raising the age limit also increased post-secondary school attendance by about 1.5 percent, even though postsecondary school is not compulsory.

The Oreopoulos chapter provides a nice overview of other studies on school leaving. My take: We need to create options for older students who've decided to return to school, but they should supplement, rather than supplant, the existing school leaving guidelines. I'm wary of setting 14 year-olds who would have stayed in school otherwise loose with the hope of ever recovering them. And the inequality implications of doing so are tremendous. Poor kids would be most likely to leave earlier and least likely to come back. While I acknowledge the potential benefits to the kids who stay (see Robert's post), I am more concerned about the likely damage done to the early dropouts.

Researchers measure the quantifiable; teachers wonder about the intangible: How much better prepared would the majority of my students be, how much richer their education, if I didn't spend most of my day struggling with those whose only reason for being here is that they are forced to do so? Which is the greater good? To do a mediocre job for all? Or a first-rate job for those who are ready, when they are ready? It's a choice we make, either consciously or by neglect. Indeed, it's a choice we've already made, isn't it? The question is if there's a wiser choice.

I've seen this before... but I'm an historian.

Without, for the moment, trying to be realistic about resources, I'm wondering if the optimal answer might be making sure the choices for kids inclined to leave school weren't just "slog through high school without motivation" or "try to stumble along on your own devices."

Well organized apprenticeship programs?

Public service programs along the lines of the CCC?

My guess is that, for a lot of kids, a structured path to a paying job and a chance to complete their education when they were ready would be a good alternative to being left to fend for themselves.

I don't know if this is possible, but maybe we could redefine this. We could be taking all of the exhortation that we try on younger, more immature students to keep them in school, supplementing those pleas with state-of-the-art technology and real dollars, and extending those efforts into the twenties. This could be defined as a re-recruitment effort that complements what we are already trying to do, just unsuccessfully.

"If we convert estimated annual earnings gains into lifetime gains, we see that a year of compulsory schooling increased lifetime wealth by an average of about 10 percent, including the revenue lost as a result of not working during school."

That's quite speculative, isn't it? I don't see where in the paper he actually measured anyone's lifetime earnings and traced an increase specifically to a law raising the mandatory schooling age. I'd be a bit more skeptical of the power of a mere regression equation to predict what will happen over several decades of earnings. See, e.g., http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0081-1750(1991)21%3C291%3ASMASL%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Stuart Buck: "If we convert estimated annual earnings gains into lifetime gains, read more
  • john thompson: I don't know if this is possible, but maybe we read more
  • Rachel: Without, for the moment, trying to be realistic about resources, read more
  • Sherman Dorn: I've seen this before... but I'm an historian. read more
  • Robert Pondiscio: Researchers measure the quantifiable; teachers wonder about the intangible: How read more




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