Education Law

When Can You Drop Out of School in North Carolina?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Most students in North Carolina can legally drop out as soon as they turn 16 years old, but some districts are experimenting with raising that age.

Every state has “compulsory education” laws that require school attendance. In North Carolina, that means children between the ages of 7 and 16 must attend classes at a public, private, or home school until they graduate. Below is a summary of the state’s laws on staying in school, dropping out, and getting high school equivalency diplomas.

Requirements for Dropping Out Legally

North Carolina is one of a few states that allow students as young as 16 years old to drop out of school before graduating. They don’t need to get their parents’ permission or meet any other requirements for leaving school. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-378.) In a pilot program, however, the state has authorized two school districts to raise the dropout age to 18.

Costs of Dropping Out

Most people know that dropping out of school is likely to bring financial consequences down the road. But they may not realize that dropouts (and their parents) can suffer more immediate legal consequences if they stop going to school before they turn 16. (For more details, see our article on what happens to truants and their parents in North Carolina.)

In addition, dropouts may not be able to drive. North Carolina residents who are under 18 years old and don’t have a high school or equivalent diploma can’t get a full driver’s license unless they meet certain requirements. Among other things, they need to show:

  • they're still going to school
  • they aren’t able to make progress toward a diploma, or
  • their families would suffer “substantial hardship” if the children didn’t have a license.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-11(n).)

High School Equivalency Tests

Former students who didn’t graduate from high school can obtain a High School Equivalency Diploma by passing one of three equivalency tests offered in North Carolina. Anyone who is 16 or older can take the test, but 16- and 17-year-olds must fill out extra paperwork in order to be eligible.

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