Can You Drop out of School?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Unless you’ve reached the legal dropout age in your state, you’ll be considered a truant if you stop going to school. But there are alternatives to dropping out.

High school can be incredibly boring or difficult for many students. School can be a particular burden for students who are dealing with bullying or harassment, learning disabilities, family troubles, homelessness, or just the need to work and earn money. At some point, a lot of kids ask themselves: Why not just drop out? Is school worth the trouble?

These questions may feel like two sides of the same coin, but there are separate issues here:

  • What are the legal requirements for attending school and dropping out?
  • Even if you can drop out legally, what are the probable consequences?

When Does the Law Allow You to Drop Out?

Every state has its own “compulsory education” laws that require students to start school by a certain age and to keep attending until they graduate from high school or reach a certain age (see our table on compulsory education age limits). All states have exceptions that allow students to drop out at an earlier age if they meet certain conditions. For instance, several states allow students to leave school if they:

  • have received their parents’ written consent and have participated in an exit meeting with school officials
  • are legally emancipated, or
  • are attending high school part time and are either legally employed or enrolled in a private vocational school.

Also, compulsory education laws typically don’t apply to students who have a physical or mental condition that makes it impractical to attend school.

What If You Drop Out Before the Law Allows?

If you stop going to school when you’re still covered by your state’s compulsory education laws, you will be considered a truant. The legal sanctions for truancy vary from state to state. But in general, you and your parents could face fines that get steeper every day you’re not in school. And in some cases, your parents could face criminal charges, or you might even get caught up in the juvenile justice system.

What Are the Other Consequences of Dropping Out?

Of course, every student is different. If you’re considering leaving school before getting your high school diploma, you probably have reasons that are unique to your situation. Sometimes, those reasons are rational under the circumstances. Other times, dropping out might be a rash response to problems that you’re experiencing. In that case, you may very well live to regret the decision. Here are some practical things to think about:

  • Dropping out could cost you a lot of money in the long run. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, dropouts earn almost $10,000 less every year than those who have a high school diploma, and nearly $34,000 less than those who graduated from college. Over an average lifetime of working, the difference amounts to about $400,000 more in earnings for those who finished high school, even if they didn’t go on to college.
  • It’s usually harder to find any work without a high school diploma. The labor department’s statistics also show that the unemployment rate for dropouts is nearly twice as high as the national average.
  • Studies have consistently shown that high school dropouts are more likely to end up in jail or juvenile detention than those who finish school.

What Are the Alternatives to Dropping Out?

If you’re thinking about dropping out of school, you should talk about your situation with your parents, school counselor, a teacher, or another knowledgeable adult you trust. They might be able to help you find an alternative path. Some of these alternatives include:

Taking a class to prepare for a high school equivalency test. In many states, students can legally drop out sooner than the law otherwise allows if they’re enrolled in a test preparation course and have their parents’ permission. Most people know about the GED, but that’s only one of three tests that different states use to measure high school equivalency skills. States offer one or more of these tests, but they generally require that students be 18 (or 17 in some cases) before they can actually take the test. Once you pass the test, your state will issue a high school equivalency credential. You should be aware, however, that government statistics show you’ll probably earn less with a GED than with a regular high school diploma, and you’ll be less likely to get a college education.

Online school and/or homeschooling. Most states offer online high schools that allow students to earn a diploma or supplemental credits—even college credits. Private online schools will charge tuition, but many districts offer free virtual public schools or charter schools. Homeschooling is another option that often includes online courses as part of the high school curriculum.

Vocational schools or special programs. Some states allow students to drop out or go to high school part time if they’re in a special program, including Job Corps training programs. Your guidance counselor should be able to give you information about the programs available where you live, as well as the age and other requirements.

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • If I’ve tried but failed to get my child to go to school, will I be subject to criminal charges? What might happen if I declare that I can’t control my child’s behavior?
  • If I’ve consented to let my child drop out, can I withdraw that permission and force my child to return to school?
  • If I dropped out of school but later changed my mind, what are the requirements for returning to classes?
  • Will the truancy laws in my state apply if I participate in a student strike or walk-out at my school to protest an issue?
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