President Obama's State of the Union call for all states to raise their minimum school-leaving age to 18 could be dismissed as just another political exhortation that sounds good and perfectly reasonable, but is not apt to turn the gears in most state's education machinery. Twenty-one states have already done it. Tennessee and seven other states have raised the minimum age to 17. And those that remain stuck at 16, for whatever reason, apparently are not easily moved.
That's too bad. Whatever whiny arguments remain against raising the minimum school-leaving age -- classroom costs, controlling students, restraining truancy -- the benefits are too great to ignore. Here's the short list, according to research by education and economic professors Henry Levin and Cecilia Rouse, reported Thursday in The New York Times:
Reduce the drop-out rate. Raising the minimum school-leaving age actually works to keep students in school longer and raise graduation rates. And that must be accomplished for both economic and social reasons. On the nation's current track, about 1.3 million students drop out of high school annually. Three out of 10 tenth-grade students in American schools do not graduate. About 20 percent of the drop-outs are white or Asian; 45 percent are blacks and Hispanics.
The high percentage of drop-outs relative to the graduation rates of our formidable economic competitors paints an increasingly bleak picture, and a more dismal economic future. The United States led the world in high school and college graduation rates in 1970. Recent figures compiled by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development show that the United States now lags behind 20 other nations in high school graduation rates, and behind 14 nations in the percentage of college graduates.
Social costs vs. economic benefits. Studies prove that students who fail to get a high school diploma usually fall far behind the economic curve of higher educational achievers. They earn less throughout their lives, cost taxpayers more in social expenditures related to public assistance, health care and crime, and produce far less tax revenue and job productivity gains than higher earners.
The flip side of that equation is equally obvious and well documented. Citizens and workers with high levels of educational achievement generally earn more, produce more in the their jobs, contribute more to social stability and stronger communities, generate higher tax revenue to the local, state and national economies, and raise the nation's rate of innovation and technological advances.
Levin and Rouse report that cutting the current high-school drop-out rate by just half would raise those graduates' life-time incomes by 50 percent to 100 percent, generating a net benefit to taxpayers of around $127,000 per graduate above the cost of programs designed to keep students in school longer. That amounts, they estimate, to nearly $90 billion for each year of success in keeping 700,000 more students in high school until they graduate, or around $1 trillion in net national benefits over 11 years.
Even if the net benefit fell short of that estimate, it is undeniably clear that a legal requirement to keep students in school to the age of 18 would yield a significant return in social health, welfare and economic and overall benefits.
States, of course, generally set their own educational course, and make their own rules. A president cannot mandate a national policy, but the president could tie federal benefits, particularly grants for Race to the Top funds, to a higher minimum school-leaving age. Obama may not choose to use that option, but the nation -- and especially the laggard states with lower school-leaving ages --would reap the benefits.