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.
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.
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.
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.