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At What Age Is It Legal to Drop Out of School?

Taking decisions for the future man standing with three direction arrow choices, left, right or move forward
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

To your teenage child, school can seem boring and pointless. The idea of calling it quits and making their own way in the world can seem alluring.

Although statistics show that dropping out is usually a bad idea, the motivation to leave school can be overwhelming. If students want to do it, however, state laws are an impediment until they reach a certain age — 16, 17 or 18, depending on the state.

The trend in the U.S. in recent years has been toward expansion of compulsory schooling to reduce dropout rates. According to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of states now require that students be either 17 or 18 before they can drop out. Since 2000, the number of states that place the cutoff at 16 years of age has dropped from 29 to 15.  

In addition to increasing the compulsory school age, many states have taken other steps to dissuade students from quitting school. For instance, 29 states link driver’s licenses to school attendance and performance

Dropout Rate Is Declining

These efforts to keep kids in school have apparently had an impact. Studies have found that in the last 18 years, U.S. high-school dropout rates have declined by nearly two-thirds. In 2000, about 1.6 million teenagers between 16 and 19 were not in school or had not completed school. Today that number is  approximately 669,000.

While each state has a designated minimum age when students may leave school, there are plenty of asterisks attached to allow earlier dropouts. Some states allow school districts to adapt to local needs, sometimes allowing special provisions in rural areas. According to the Education Commission of the States, school districts also provide exemptions for students who need to work, who have physical or mental conditions that make attendance difficult, who have parental permission, etc.

Truancy Defined

But what about students who drop out - or start to drop out - before they reach the minimum age?

Students will skip school without permission for any number of reasons, of course. But if the absenteeism becomes more chronic, most states will label the student as “truant” when it reaches a certain point. In Connecticut, for example, a truant is a student who has four unexcused absences in a month or 10 in any school year; in Illinois, if a student has unexcused absences for 10 percent of 180 consecutive days, they are truant. When a student is labeled as truant, many states at least have the latitude to file criminal charges against parents. According to the Urban Institute, 24 states plus the District of Columbia allow punitive measures in juvenile court or family court against parents of truants.

What Can Parents Do?

If you are the parent of a high school student who’s thinking about dropping out, it may be difficult to talk them out of it. They may hate school and see dropping out as a ticket to freedom and a chance to start earning a paycheck now instead of later.

It may be wise to sit down and talk to them about the likely ramifications of that decision and also to talk with school counselors and staff about how your child’s mind might be changed by an improved school experience. And keep in mind that dropping out of school is not necessarily the end of your child’s educational career. They may still decide to go on and get a GED and even a college degree.

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