President Obama seems to be rather fond of mandates.  We are all familiar with his health care insurance mandate and his love of executive orders.  Now it seems that he wishes to solve our educational woes with mandatory high school graduation (or at least attendance until the age of 18).  It seems strange that the president should choose to address this relatively minor problem so emphatically when faced with the ever more dire threats of debt the size of the nation’s economy, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and the continuing financial crises.

First, it is important to address the issue of choice.  What seems to be a common theme in politics repeats itself; the government allows individuals a choice.  When individuals make the wrong choice, the government declares the ability to choose must be eliminated.  This attitude is especially disquieting in a nominally “pro-choice” President.  It seems that in the eyes of the administration, a seventeen-year-old girl is qualified to decide the fate of her unborn child, but is unable to decide whether or not to attend high school.

The practical reality of this proposal also brings into question its moral integrity.  The federal government involves itself only to the extent of requiring states to require students to stay until graduation or their 18th birthday.  Despite stripping the states of the right to decide the minimal amount of high school education, the federal government still leaves the states to pay for it.  There is some degree of correlation between low graduation rates and high poverty rates in states.  Mississippi, the state with the highest rate of poverty, also has a graduation rate of 63.9%. Although 100% graduation is not realistic, even under Obama’s plan, let us assume the goal of 100% graduation is achieved.  This would represent a 56.5% increase in student population at Mississippi high schools.  Either the state must raise taxes on its already financially beleaguered population or accept larger class sizes and fewer teachers per student.  One option would harm a vulnerable economy while the other would create an environment where academic enrichment is even harder to obtain.  This makes the incentive to drop out even greater.

This plan has been tried before in various states, like New Mexico, whose graduation rate is, nevertheless, only 65%, as well as Texas, which is scarcely better at 67%, and Hawaii at 69%.  More positive examples do exist, like Wisconsin, with an impressive 85% graduation rate.  Iowa, meanwhile, lets students drop out at 16 years old and has an astounding 93% graduation rate.  Georgia also lets 16-year-old students drop out and has a graduation rate of only 54%. There does not appear to be any correlation whatsoever between minimum age for dropping out and graduation rates.

A survey conducted by John M. Bridgeland, John J. DiIulio, Jr., and Karen Burke Morison cited a number of reasons why students decided to drop out of high school.  Though the individual reasons vary greatly, a common theme of disengagement seems present among them.  47% of drop-outs surveyed said that classes were uninteresting, 65% reported frequently missing class and 81% said that their education should have been more applicable to the workplace.  Simply mandating graduation for these students is unlikely to produce the desired results.  According to this survey, 32% had already repeated grades prior to dropping out. Before taking the drastic step of mandating high school graduation, it would be sensible to look for new ways to engage students and make their education relevant to their careers.

Nevertheless, the high school drop-out problem is far too complex to fit into the neat formula of a single solution. It may be true that mandatory attendance until the age of 18 is the best idea, but it is not likely to be the best idea in every case.  As such, this problem is best addressed on a local level by state governments and individual communities who are most aware of the problems facing their schools. After all, isn’t it their choice?

William McMahon :: University of Missouri :: Columbia, Missouri :: @WilliamAMcMahon