Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, Minnesota youths must stay in school until age 17 — a year longer than current law requires. The change, passed quietly during the 2013 Legislative session, moves Minnesota in a long-overdue direction.
The age 16 rule no longer fits contemporary education needs — neither for individual students nor for society. Today’s young Americans need high school (and post-high-school) training to have a chance to make a good living. And the local, national and global economies need well-educated workers.
State Sen. Chuck Wiger, (D-Maplewood), deserves credit for persistently pushing for this change. As one who dropped out himself but later returned to school to earn a law degree, he knows of what he speaks.
Though Minnesota typically scores well on most education indicators, the state’s dropout rate needs work. The four-year high school graduation rate stands at 77.6 percent statewide. Minneapolis is at 50 percent. And the statewide rate for African-American and American Indian students ranges from 45 to 51 percent.
Even though another 13 percent of students are listed as “continuing” their studies past four years, state officials are rightly concerned about the four-year rate.
Wiger long has argued that Minnesota’s compulsory attendance age of 16 — when a student can drop out with parents’ permission — is part of the problem. Over years, he sought to push it up to 18, as President Obama has urged states to do. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has supported that position, too.
It has taken Minnesota years of debate to finally move in the right direction. In the 1990s, lawmakers approved increasing the attendance age in 2000, giving schools a few years to make the adjustment. But the Legislature repealed the new requirement before it went into effect — because of concerns about cost. Some legislators and educators also worried that keeping kids in class who didn’t want to be there would be disruptive.
Those same arguments defeated the idea of a higher compulsory attendance age during the past decade — until now. Over the years, it has become clearer that the state’s and nation’s future prosperity is tied to having a well-educated workforce. Studies show that people without at least a high school diploma earn substantially less than those with degrees. Dropouts are also more likely to be unemployed, commit crimes and become dependent on government services — ultimately becoming more of a drain on precious tax dollars.
And with open enrollment, postsecondary options, charter schools and other alternatives, there are now more ways to keep youths engaged in learning.
That’s crucial for the economy. The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based education advocacy group, produces annual state-by-state analyses of the economic benefits of keeping more students on track to graduate. According to AEE:
• In 2011, an estimated 14,300 Minnesota students dropped out, creating a potential loss of $2 billion in lifetime earnings and taxes paid.
• If students of color in Minnesota graduated at the same rate as white students by 2020, more than $1.3 billion could be added to the state economy. If Minnesota’s male graduation rate increased by just 5 percent, the state economy could see an annual combination of savings and revenue of nearly $80 million in reduced crime spending and increased earnings.
The group also reports that if at least half of the 2011 dropouts had stayed in school and earned a diploma, the net economic benefits would be enormous — including the creation of 500 new jobs and $7.7 million in increased state tax revenue over their lifetimes.
In a state with one of the widest learning disparities in the nation (between white students and students of color), keeping more kids in school would make a huge difference.
Wiger says the change he has championed is part of an overall antidropout strategy of the state education department and Gov. Mark Dayton. New counseling efforts and more-seamless connection with postsecondary programs that lead directly to jobs will help engage students who otherwise might walk.
“It sends a signal,” Wiger said, “that you need to be in school.”