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Research Lacking on Benefits of Staying in School Longer

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Dropout prevention is one of the holy grails in U.S. education policy, and for good reason. Stick around long enough to earn a diploma, and you’re instantly more likely to have a job, rely less on government subsistence and even make the leap to postsecondary learning.

One method to keep kids in school is to raise the compulsory school attendance age. Eleven states raised their compulsory attendance ages between 2002 and 2011. During the president’s State of the Union address in 2012, Obama implored all states to compel students to stay in school until they’re old enough to vote. But that appeal fell on mostly deaf ears, possibly because keeping kids in school is expensive and budgets were already squeezed.

A new study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm adds fuel to the debate over raising the compulsory school attendance age. Researchers scanned literature on dropout prevention and found no conclusive evidence that increasing the mandatory age of attendance had the desired effects of keeping kids in school.

From the report:

“Studies simply do not provide conclusive, empirical evidence for or against increasing the compulsory school attendance age. However, despite divergent views on the merits of raising the compulsory attendance age, recent studies tend to conclude that if states take this route, they should do so in conjunction with other retention and dropout prevention policies to create a comprehensive approach.”

The report’s authors did find research that pointed to financial and social benefits from raising the compulsory age. But they say the findings are no longer applicable because the underlying data sets of that earlier research do not reflect current economic and demographic circumstances. Other papers found outright negative effects or mixed results. Another limitation of the body of research is a paucity of state data sets that tracked changes in student outcomes after raising the compulsory age.

But the authors of the report anticipate that future data sets could be robust enough to draw conclusions on whether this policy approach is effective. Maryland recently changed its mandatory age from 16 to 18. The authors write that well-designed longitudinal analyses—“one for the change from age 16 to 17 and another for the change from age 17 to 18 and both covering multiple years”—could help guide other states mulling over the switch. After all, in 2012, fewer than half of the states mandated that students be required to stay in school until they’re 18.

Another state to pay attention to is West Virginia, which recently raised its compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17. That law has been in effect since the 2011-12 school year, and the AP reported this week that fewer 16-year-olds have dropped out of high school as a result, according to state data. Whether more of the students required to stay in school longer earn a diploma remains to be seen.