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Compulsory schooling and support programs keep students in school

by CIFAR Feb 26 / 13

Graduating from high school has lifetime benefits: a collection of research consistently shows that high school students nudged to stay in school earn substantially more money and are healthier and happier than if they were allowed to drop out earlier.

High school students
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Recognizing the value of high school completion that these results suggest, Senior Fellow Philip Oreopoulos (University of Toronto) and PhD student Derek Messacar studied how graduation rates could be improved in the United States, where the dropout rate is roughly 30 per cent. They found that by making school attendance compulsory until age 18 and adding targeted support programs for students and parents, states could improve high school graduation rates and future quality of life for young adults. Their findings are published in Issues in Science and Technology.

In many American states, the legal age to drop out of high school is 16. In their paper, the researchers argue that the federal government needs to better educate states on the benefits of graduation and encourage legislative action to make school mandatory to age 18. Oreopoulos and Messacar estimate that if the legal drop-out age was increased to 18 in every state, approximately 55,000 more students would graduate from high school and another 34,000 would go on to college each year.

However, the researchers also recommend that this compulsory move should be adopted alongside other policies to engage and encourage students to complete high school.

“A core message of the study, which also applies to Canada, is that students who become disengaged and uninterested in high school could benefit from a more supportive system that helps ensure completion,” says Oreopoulos. “More intensive one-on-one regular coaching, innovative courses to make school more interesting, and compulsory schooling to set the expectation that everyone should stay in school, will lead to higher graduation rates.”

In Canada, many provinces have already moved in this direction, raising the school leaving age to 18 and introducing more varied curricula in upper years. But as Oreopoulos explains, more intensive support for struggling students – especially support like the Pathways to Education program in Canada, which begins early and follows students as they progress through high school – is needed to improve outcomes for at-risk youth.

This research was prepared for the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution.