At age 16, students are not allowed to vote, get tattoos, buy alcohol or get a credit card. But there is one life shaping decision high school sophomores and juniors are allowed to make: whether or not to dropout of school.
Georgia is not alone in having a low legal dropout age of 16, but many other states have raised their dropout age to 17 or 18 years old, including Georgia’s neighbors Tennessee and South Carolina which have both raised their dropout age to 17. According to the Tennessee Education Commission, the state had an 89.1 percent graduation rate in 2017, about 8 points higher than Georgia’s graduation rate of 80.6 percent in 2017.
Does it even matter that students graduate high school, especially if they have no plans for postsecondary education?
Perhaps in another decade when jobs for unskilled teens were more plentiful, the number of students failing to graduate would not have been as startling. Nowadays, however, the Atlanta Regional Commission predicts that in five years, 60 percent of jobs in the state will require post-secondary education. Yet, only 38 percent of Georgia sophomores get that far.
Most dropouts will suffer from their decision to not finish high school. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, over the course of their lifetime, a high school dropout on average earns about $260,000 less than a graduate. Adults that dropped out are usually regretful — 74 percent of survey participants told the Educational Testing Service that they would have stayed in school if they could make the decision again.
It’s not just the dropouts who suffer, though; the United States economy is hurt every time a 16 year old kid decides to dropout. The Hamilton Project found that dropouts from the class of 2010 alone will cost the nation more than $337 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes. If the dropouts from the class of 2006 had graduated, the nation could have saved more than $17 billion in Medicaid and expenditures for uninsured health care over their lifetimes.
Although education departments save money in the short term when students dropout because schools no longer have to spend money on them, the long term costs of dropping out on the nation far outweigh the small investment schools make by retaining students.
Perhaps the largest cost of dropping out, is that evidence suggests it is a gateway to incarceration. The National Education Alliance found that nearly 71 percent of people in prison do not have a high school diploma. However, an additional year of school reduced arrests by up to 18 percent. The same Hamilton Project researchers showed that a 10 percent increased in graduation rates would reduce murder and assault rates by 20 percent, motor vehicle theft by 13 percent and arson by 8 percent.
Furthermore, U.S. census data shows that Georgia spends about $20,000 a year keeping an inmate in jail, but only about $10,000 keeping a kid in school. It’s evident that keeping students in school and therefore reducing crime is cheaper than letting dropouts succumb to a fate in prison.
But would raising the dropout age even be productive?
Princeton University and Brooking Institute Researchers working on the Future of Children Project say yes. They said that research has shown quite consistently that students in states with a higher dropout age stay in school longer.
Even if students don’t graduate, staying in school one more year will guarantee a better future for dropouts. A Journal of Public Economics study found that annual earnings are nearly 10 percent higher for students compelled to stay in school an extra year and rates of murder, assault, vehicle theft, arson and burglary are all reduced.
It would in the best interest of students, the school system all of Georgia’s citizens for Georgia to raise the dropout age from 16 to 17, in accordance to fellow states across the country.