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John Eggers: Let’s make it illegal to quit school

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A high school diploma is so important, it’s like that old credit card commercial that warned people to never leave home without it.

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 On every door in every high school there should be a warning label that reads: “Warning: leaving high school without a diploma is hazardous to your health and everyone around you.” This is why dropping out of school should be illegal.

 You might be inclined to think that this is too harsh or punitive. If a student wishes to quit school at a certain age, he or she should have that right.

 Should they then have the right to drive an auto without a license? We require people to have a driver’s license because it is for their own protection as well as our protection. The same case can also be made about requiring students to have a high school diploma. It’s for their good and ours as well. How so?

 The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation. Sixty-eight percent of state prison inmates dropped out of high school.

 In 2009 and 2010, 4,930,000 adults were on probation or on parole and 2,260,000 adults were incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and county jails. In total, 7,100,000 adults were under correctional supervision, which represents about 3 percent of adults in the United States.

 For each inmate, we spend about $30,000 a year. Let’s suppose that half of those prisoners stayed in school and graduated and would not have been incarcerated. What would the savings be? Not including the amount of money we spend on those who are on probation or parole, we would save $40 billion a year.

 It’s not just the savings in cost that is important. A high school diploma means fewer medical costs, because graduates tend to be healthier people. Conversely, high school dropouts have a life span nine years shorter than graduates. Not only are dropouts less healthy, they are sick more often and they stay sick longer, and they are more likely to live in poverty. Our compassion alone should be enough to see the need for every young person to have a diploma.

 Another reason seldom mentioned why it should be illegal to go without a diploma is that a young person’s brain is not fully developed. This means his or her decision-making ability is not up to par. Parents know all about this.

 It is true that some young people who drop out of school often return a few years later to get their graduate equivalency diploma. Note that this is after they are a few years older and a few years wiser.

 But don’t parents have to sign off before giving their young person permission to quit school? True, but usually parents of high school dropouts face many other issues, and frequently they were also high school dropouts.

 Dropouts are often unable to find work, not to mention good-paying jobs with a future. They are also more likely to be on public assistance. A high school dropout earns nearly $10,000 less a year than someone with a diploma. Over a lifetime, high school dropouts make about $1 million less than college grads. High school dropouts often marry earlier and have more children who also often end up leaving school early.

 Supposedly we are the smartest country in the world, yet we cannot keep our children in school.

 If we can require every young person to have a driver’s license before they drive, we can require everyone to have a diploma before he or she receives his or her license. That would be a pretty strong carrot for most young people.

 How would this impact schools? First, it would increase their enrollment. What district isn’t looking for more bodies? Second, schools would need more teachers, therefore creating more jobs. Third, schools would need to look for new strategies to make school more relevant to this “turned-off ” group of kids. Fourth, creating more alternative-type schools might be necessary, thereby giving students more options. Fifth, more bodies means more revenue for schools. And, sixth, schools would be fulfilling their number-one goal — graduating 100 percent of their students.

 As our Congress gets ready for a new session, making dropping out of school illegal would be an interesting issue to discuss. It could be one issue where there would be bipartisan agreement. It already has White House support. President Obama has said, “All students should stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.” He also said, “When students aren’t allowed to drop out, they do better.”

 To me, the issue of staying in school and making it illegal to leave without a diploma is a no-brainer. If we want a better America, we need a smarter America. It all starts with the high school diploma. Kids shouldn’t ever leave school without it.

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 JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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