Compulsory School Attendance: What Research Says and What It Means for State Policy

Grover Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield of the Brookings Institution present a cost-benefit style analysis on whether stricter compulsory school attendance (CSA) laws improve high school graduation rates. Compulsory attendance laws vary state-to-state, with respect to the mandatory age of attendance—some require students to attend to sixteen, some seventeen, and others eighteen.  In Ohio, the mandatory age of attendance is eighteen years old. But in this year’s State of the Union, the president recently argued for national unity on the age of CSA, stating that “every state [should] require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

Is the president’s proposal good policy? When the authors analyzed the cost of CSA laws, they found that costs are low. Based on the authors’ analysis of 2009 research by Phillip Oreopoulos on the cost impact of compulsory attendance on disadvantaged youth, raising the CSA age to eighteen would not impose significant additional cost to the K-12 school system.

However, despite the low cost of CSA laws, benefits are low. Why? The authors find that, when comparing coded National Center for Education Statistics Averaged Freshman Graduation Rates from 1994-95 to 2008-09, states did not increase graduation rates after increasing the CSA age to eighteen. This means that there is no relationship between raising the CSA age and higher graduation rates.

Overall, the report suggests that even though a tougher CSA policy would not put a dent in issue it aims to fix, it could do some good to those students and parents who follow it. The authors present other interventions and policies, such as dropout prevention mentorship programs, that may be more effective in reducing high school dropout. Such programs address the underlying problems associated with dropping out; perhaps these deserve more attention and support than stricter CSA laws.

Compulsory School Attendance: What Research Says and Whit It Means for State Policy
By Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst & Sarah Whitfield
Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings
August 2012

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