Of whiz-kids and wizards: Why it’s time to change the way we think about who can go to high school

The University of Rhode Island was looking for a few good students. And Teresa Mahony figured she fit the bill.

At nearly 70 years old, Mahony enrolled in college, setting for herself a goal of completing one class each semester. Ten years later — just weeks before her 80th birthday — Mahony graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Mahony’s story is inspiring. But it also highlights a troubling inconsistency in the way our society supports those who want to better themselves through education.

Few would question the opportunity that Mahony was given by Rhode Island, which subsidizes 65 percent of the cost of higher education for anyone who is a legal resident of the state. Indeed, every state in our nation helps pay the way for its resident college students — hence the substantial difference between in-state and out-of-sate tuition. That, of course, is on top of federal financial aid, including grants and low-cost loans, available to almost anyone who wants to attend college but who doesn’t have the money to do so.

Why do we do this? Because our society recognizes that having an highly educated populace is a public policy imperative. So, whether you’re a whiz-kid of 16 or a wizard of 100, your state will help pay for you to go to college.

Does it strike you as odd, then, that we don’t make the same deal for students seeking their high school diploma? In most states, public funding for secondary education ends before the age of 22. So, with limited exceptions, students who don’t complete their high school studies by then are on their own to find and pay for their education.

There is actually a good reason for these rules — or at least there was. Most of the laws setting these age limits were written at a time when the only choice for secondary school was a brick-and-mortar building. And, of course, no one wanted to see 30-something dropouts chasing basketballs in gym class with 14-year-old freshmen.

Today, of course, the Internet makes it possible for students to share an educational experience without sharing physical space. And in fact, online schools are the preferred learning environment for many adult students who simply don’t have the ability to sit in a classroom for seven or more hours at a time, each day.

When we talk about publicly funding opportunities for dropouts, are we coddling students who were just too lazy to stay in school in the first place? Absolutely not. The majority of dropouts don’t leave school because they’re having trouble in the classroom. For most, life circumstances — pregnancy, financial hardship, violence, a lack of stability or a lack of parental support — are the primary reasons for leaving school. And that comes at a great cost — for them and for all of us. Because high school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be on welfare, more likely to be in public housing and more likely to be imprisoned.

Mahony puts it this way: “Without the benefits of a high school education, you’re going to be on a dead-end street.”

So if we’ve made the commitment — as a matter of public policy — to help pay for any student’s college education, regardless of their age, why can’t we do the same for high school?

A few states have asked that question in recent years. And even in these tough economic times, the answer is clear: We must make more opportunities for those who didn’t finish high school to get back into school.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed a series of sweeping reforms aimed at curbing the Lone Star State’s high dropout rate. Under one new law, the state raised the age limit for secondary school funding by five years, effectively allowing students up to the age of 26 to re-enroll in school.

The law is full of reasonable safeguards. Brick and mortar schools aren’t obligated to take the older students and have specific right to refuse service to those who are discipline problems. Schools that do opt into the program must keep older students who have been out of school for three or more years separate from younger students.

The state of Kansas has gone a few steps further. It has opted to support students who wish to return to school regardless of age. That commitment to educational access is absolutely laudable.

But while the Texas and Kansas have made some noble efforts toward giving dropouts a chance to succeed in life, they’ve only taken the first few steps. Those juggling work, family and other obligations can’t generally complete school at the same rate as traditional, full-time high school students.

There’s no question that the rigors of a high school education should be consistent, regardless of the age of the student. But today’s technology provides us the opportunity to make school more flexible — and we should take advantage of that.

No one rushed Mahony to finish her college degree. She worked at her own, steady pace, and was rewarded a decade later when she graduated with honors from the University of Rhode Island. She believes the same accommodations should be made for high school students: So long as they are making consistent progress toward their diploma, why should we limit their opportunities to succeed with an artificial deadline?

Older students wishing to improve their lives by getting back into high school should find it as easy to re-enroll as Mahony did when she decided to go back to college. And if they’re willing to work as hard as she did, we shouldn’t stop them from following in her footsteps, making a better life for themselves — and for all of us.

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Gregg Rosann is the President and Chief Technology Officer of The American Academy, which works with school districts across the country to re-enroll students through its dropout recovery program. For more information about TAA and its programs, visit www.nodropouts.com

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