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Policy Proposals

Staying in school: A proposal to raise high-school graduation rates

September 27, 2012

The Problem

High school dropout rates have hovered near 30 percent for the past three decades, with those who do not earn a diploma—who are disproportionately low-income and minority students—more likely to face various social, economic, and health challenges over their lifetimes. The U.S. dropout rate affects not only individuals’ lifetime earning potential, but also the nation’s economic effectiveness.

The Proposal

Research has shown that key interventions, which would require commitment at both the federal and state levels, can boost high school graduation rates. All states should raise the minimum school-leaving age to eighteen. This step should be complemented with new strategies to reengage at-risk youth early on, including outreach to parents, targeted mentoring and tutoring programs, high expectations, and expansion of promising alternative education programs such as career academies.


High school dropouts fare substantially worse than their peers on a wide variety of long-term economic outcomes. On average, a dropout earns less money, is more likely to be in jail, is less healthy, is less likely to be married, and is unhappier than a high school graduate. But despite this growing education gap, dropout rates have remained mostly unchanged over the past three decades. This problem disproportionately affects low-income and minority students: among these populations, nearly half of all individuals do not graduate with their class. This paper presents a plan to increase the high school graduation rate. A key element of the proposal is for all states to increase their minimum school-leaving age to eighteen. In many studies, this intervention has been found to have a significant positive impact on several long-term outcomes. The proposal also calls for more resources for enforcement of new and existing compulsory-schooling laws, to maximize the impact of the policy change. More effort is also needed to keep students engaged in school, even at an early age. If states invest in effective support programs, they can further increase graduation rates and reduce future costs of enforcing compulsory-schooling policies. All of these interventions should be implemented with the goal of strengthening America’s primary education system to promote college attendance and improve career outcomes among America’s youth.