Pou: It's Time to Raise the Dropout Age

March 14, 2012

 In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama called on every state to raise its dropout age to 18. The president's message that our students cannot succeed if our schools allow them to dropout prematurely is one that should resonate throughout all communities.

In the state Senate, I am proud to carry the president's message in Trenton as the sponsor of legislation to raise New Jersey's dropout age to 18.

The benefits of a high school diploma are well-known. A high school graduate will, according to research, earn an average of $7,840 more a year than a high school dropout — who would earn only $19,540. Additionally, studies have shown dropouts also rely more on government services and programs than those with a diploma, adding to the costs to taxpayers.

Given the benefits of a high school education to both residents and the state, the question really is why New Jersey isn't in the forefront of states that have already raised their dropout age to 18. Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia require school attendance until 18; 11 others require attendance until 17. New Jersey is among a minority of states to allow dropouts at 16 — a law that hasn't changed since 1940.

Times have changed a lot in the last 72 years, and so must our laws. New Jersey can do better. Today, the skilled jobs that comprise our economy require a high school diploma — at the absolute least.

Our children deserve basic preparation to be competitive among today's highly educated workforce. Ensuring that high school proficiencies are met is an absolute must.

While high school dropouts come from every walk of life, in New Jersey students in urban schools districts are significantly more likely to leave before graduation than their suburban counterparts. And, minority students are more than twice as likely to drop out than white students. These are thousands of teens who are now twice as likely to live in poverty, three times as likely to be unemployed, and eight times as likely to end up behind bars — all greater costs than ensuring basic proficiency.

To be sure, raising the dropout age is not the ultimate solution. Instead, it must be part of a larger strategy to build capacity for students who might otherwise slip through the cracks — students who may face hidden adversities like foster placement or the loss of a parent. Part of our solution should involve revisiting punitive statutes that fine those who dropout before reaching the required age. We should, instead, expect those youth to invest in society through community service or some other channel, but we can only expect that if we first invest in them.

My bill to make New Jersey one of the plurality of states with a higher dropout age passed the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 6. It is my hope that this bill will become law before the start of the next school year — before any more kids find themselves in an unbreakable cycle of poverty and lost dreams.

Nellie Pou, D-Passaic/Bergen, represents the 35th Legislative District in the New Jersey Senate.