Should High School Graduation be Mandatory?

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

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9 Responses

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  1. Michelle
    Feb 17, 2012 - 12:04 AM

    Prehaps you should revisit the classroom. I didn’t say the Republicans where screwing over the Dems – they’re screwing over the teachers.

    And yes, regulations ruined education! Not a act that forces children to all test the same, including those in speical education. /scarasm.

    I’m guessing you don’t actually know a teacher. My mother works in the richest county in this country, has two masters and has been teaching for over 30 years – and makes 55K a year. And where did I say teachers where on welfare or living in the streets?

    Further, MP stated a generalization – which I easily put down with actual facts. So I’m not sure how he’s right and I’m wrong. Prehaps you should actually research as well?

  2. WITeacher
    Feb 11, 2012 - 06:10 AM

    Michelle, MP is right, you could not be more wrong.

    “The reason teachers support Dems is because the Republicans always fuck them over. No Child Left Behind really screwed over a broken system.”

    -Can I ask what you mean when rambling about Republicans ‘screwing’ Democrats over? I could argue Democrats have all but destroyed public education. It all started with the unionization of public education and later the formation of the Department of Education. Notice how public education began showing cracks within the last couple decades, it is directly correlated to unionization beginning its’ stranglehold over public schools. Next, try not to sound so ignorant by cussing when trying to present your arguments. Doesn’t make your argument very convincing to either side.

    “We live in a world where underpaid teachers have to buy supplies for their over flowing classrooms. Anyone who thinks unions are just there to make sure teachers get paid clearly understands nothing.”

    -In regards to your last sentence, clearly you know nothing about this subject. Teachers here in Wisconsin average salary is $52,610, plus average fringe benefits (healthcare/pension) at $27,000. According to several reports from, factoring in a 184 day work calendar and vacation and sick days, teacher’s are paid up to 12% more than a private sector employee with the equivalent degree. Now, I’m only speaking for Wisconsin, I’m not so sure on other states, but I can guarantee, no teachers are on the welfare dole or living on the streets.

    As for teachers buying supplies for their classrooms, those hundreds of dollars worth of classroom ‘materials’ are in most states, tax write-offs, not costing the teacher a dime.

    Great piece, Will.

  3. Michelle
    Feb 08, 2012 - 03:17 PM

    Here are the key issues of the AFT:

    There seems to be a lot more than “get paid” or other variations on there.

    Prehaps you should research before stating your unfactual opinion.

  4. MP
    Feb 07, 2012 - 12:09 PM

    Michelle, you could not be more wrong. Teachers’ unions are there to ensure they get paid – that is all.

    The problem is the system. It’s commonly understood that when putting talented, motivated people into a bad system, the system will eat them alive. The education system has to be replaced with one where people choose the path that they perceive best suits their needs. Standardized curriculum is inherently flawed; there is no such thing as a standardized student, eh?

  5. Michelle
    Feb 07, 2012 - 11:13 AM

    I’m not sure how a passing reference to this in his state of the union is proritizing it over anything you listed here. Has he started work on it? No?

    As for Badkarma’s comments, clearly you’ve done no research. The reason teachers support Dems is because the Republicans always fuck them over. No Child Left Behind really screwed over a broken system.

    We live in a world where underpaid teachers have to buy supplies for their over flowing classrooms. Anyone who thinks unions are just there to make sure teachers get paid clearly understands nothing.

  6. Badkarma
    Feb 06, 2012 - 09:27 PM

    Increasing the student population would require hiring more teachers. More union teachers. The teacher’s unions are already the biggest political contributors in the nation, donating almost exclusively to democrats. States would initiate ‘do it for the children’ tax increases, claiming education is underfunded. These types of tax increases benefit only the teachers and their unions, and never the students. This is just Obama wanting to increase the membership numbers in the unions that support the democrat party, under the false pretense of improving education.

  7. Grumpy
    Feb 06, 2012 - 06:02 PM

    Just for the heck of it I’m going to toss another wrench into the conversation–

    Let’s say a kid drops out at 16 because he’s not interested in school, he’d be a fair student-good at math, not so good at the other CORE Subjects,,

    He goes to work for a plumber and loves it– By the time he’s seventeen he’s earning $500 bucks a week- At 18 he’s earning $600 and doing side jobs on weekends, sometimes doubling his weekly income– At twenty-two he goes into business and makes 50 grand the first year..

    That’s the same his high school friends are finishing college stuck with 40 grand in college loans and a degree that won’t get them a job,, Our dropout ends up hiring one of them– for 12 dollars an hour.

    When was the last time you had a plumbing emergency and asked the plumber where he went to college?

    Not all drop-outs are that smart, some are



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