Special Report
Student Well-Being

Many States Put Age Limits on Schools’ Dropout-Recovery Services

By Sterling C. Lloyd — May 31, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The amount of time a student has to complete a public high school education and earn a diploma depends on the state where he or she lives.

Often decades old, laws establishing the minimum and maximum ages at which students must be admitted to public school free of charge vary considerably by state. Such laws can create barriers that make it difficult to finish high school in the public K-12 system, especially for older students and those returning after a dropout spell.

Policymakers have periodically focused attention on state laws governing compulsory school attendance, which require students to stay in school until reaching a certain age—16 in most states. During the past decade, for example, the Washington-based policy group Civic Enterprises and other organizations promoted raising the compulsory-attendance age as a way to help more students finish high school. Some governors have successfully pushed to raise that age threshold in their states, and President Barack Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union address, urged state lawmakers to set the compulsory-attendance age at 18.

By contrast, requirements related to the maximum age for students to receive a free public education have typically been relegated to the sidelines of the education agenda. According to 2013 data collected by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States and updated by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, the maximum age for a free public education established in state statutes ranges from 19 to 22. Slightly more than half the states (27) set the maximum age at 21, while 10 states either set no age limit or leave that decision up to local school systems.

No Consensus

Age Rules

Laws in 27 states require free public education to be provided to students until age 21. In the two states with the lowest age limits for tuition-free schooling, students must be admitted to public schools until age 19.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Education Commission of the States, as updated by EPE Research Center, 2013

Like laws on compulsory school attendance, statutes regarding the maximum age for tuition-free schooling are foundational policies first enacted in an earlier era that might now be re-examined with an eye toward promoting graduation. In a 2012 report, Civic Enterprises noted that such laws could affect dropout recovery by limiting the number of years returning dropouts have to pursue diplomas and the resources available to them. With a slim majority of states setting the maximum age for a free public education at 21, a national consensus hardly exists around such policies. One state, Ohio, sets its upper age limit at 22, while nine have set the maximum age at 20. Montana and Oregon, the states with the lowest ceilings, allow individuals to be admitted at no cost until age 19. A handful of states do not set an age limit for eligibility for free education; a few others leave such decisions up to school districts.

Even states that establish specific maximum age limits may explicitly give districts the option of serving older students. Texas law, for example, permits districts to admit students up to the age of 26 for the purpose of completing a diploma. If admitted, those students are entitled by law to resources supported by public school funding.

Limited Options

Once young adults reach their 20s, they may face narrowing options for pursuing a high school diploma and start looking to alternatives outside the K-12 system. Adult education programs—both public and private—have long been one option for older students. And some high school dropouts move on to community college without a diploma. Such alternative paths often come with significant downsides, however.

Adult programs typically lead to a General Educational Development certificate or other nondiploma credential. They may also require students to pay tuition and textbook costs, may lack certain resources and supports provided in the K-12 system, or be available only on a limited basis. Research also suggests that the GED certificate now confers fewer long-term benefits—in postsecondary education, career opportunities, and income—than the standard diploma. In community colleges, on the other hand, students must pay tuition and may be required to enroll in remedial classes that do not provide credit toward a degree.

Policymakers seeking to re-examine current laws as a lever to increase high school completion will likely have to weigh a range of factors, such as the trade-off between the financial costs of expanding access to free educational services and the increased public revenues and social benefits that could result from boosting residents’ educational attainment and economic prospects.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion In Uncertain Times, Students Need to Be Able to Adapt
They might need to hang in there when the going gets tough, but it’s also important to adjust when circumstances change.
Andrew Martin
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Q&A Communications Expert Explains: How to Talk to Parents About COVID Vaccination
A Johns Hopkins University expert discusses a new training project on how to communicate about the sensitive issue.
7 min read
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the garage doors of the Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2021. The Los Angeles board of education voted to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend in-person classes in the nation's second-largest school district.
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in September, 2021.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Student Well-Being What the Research Says New Research Shows How Bad the Pandemic Has Been for Student Mental Health
Researchers say the road to recovery will be a long one.
4 min read
2016 Opinion ELL 840293800
E+/Getty
Student Well-Being Letter to the Editor Policymakers Must Prioritize SEL
SEL is important both to help students overcome challenges caused by the pandemic and to build resilience in the longterm, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty