Lower the School Dropout Age: It’s Better for Kids to Have Choices

An Open Letter to Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania

Governor Wolf,

You have recently been campaigning to raise the high school dropout age. This is a really, really bad idea. Actually, you should lower it. There are a lot of good reasons for this, but I’m going to start with my own story. You see, if the dropout age had been 18 when I was a teenager, I probably would have had a very different and dramatically worse life. Being able to drop out of high school saved me and saved my family.

When I was 14 years old, my dad lost his job, and moved away. My mom was a homemaker with no work experience and no experience managing money – my dad had always handled all of that. All of a sudden, we had no income, and a lot of expenses. I had grown up pretty affluent, but it turns out my parents were spending money about as fast as my dad made it, so there weren’t much of any reserves. So we need a source of income, fast.

My mom started looking for work, but she had no skills, and couldn’t find much. I knew I needed to do something. So I looked at my options, and I figured out that I had exactly one marketable skill which would pay decently. I had grown up riding horses and I was good at it. And I knew friends who had made money riding racehorses.

Horse and rider jumping over a fence.
Yes, this is me, at a riding competition, I was about 12 or 13 I think.

So, at the age of 14, I dropped out of high school, borrowed a car, and drove 6 hours to the nearest racetrack. I lied about my age (because of child labor laws – another bad idea borne of good intentions), and got a job immediately as an exercise girl and general stable helper, riding racehorses out for exercise in the mornings and mucking out stalls and doing general work in the afternoons.

It paid pretty well – $15/hour at a time when the minimum wage was $3.35. It was hard work, and a big change from the sheltered private school small town environment I’d grown up in. But it gave me the opportunity to help my mom pay our mortgage, and it let me control my own future. And I learned a lot – about hard work, about professionalism, about showing up and doing what had to be done even when it was freezing or pouring rain or sweltering hot. About working as part of team, even when the other people were difficult or unpleasant. About taking pride in paying my own way and earning my own independance.

After a bit more than a year, I’d made enough money that we were out of the woods financially. I’d also grown tall enough that making weight (staying at the expected low weight to ride racehorses) was getting harder to do, and I’d seen one friend die in a freak accident in the starting gates and a couple of other friends have serious injuries that left them unable to ride again, so I knew I could not do this forever.

I started exploring options, and after a little while I was able to get a job training horses and managing a small barn back in my home town, on the strength of my experience at the racetracks. And this job even came with health insurance! I was now 15 years old, working full time to support myself and help my mom, who had found work as a home health aide.

Next I wanted to find a career with better long term prospects. So I went to see the principal of our local public high school. He and I talked for quite a while, and he said that in his opinion high school was not the right place for me and I should go apply to the local college. Now note, I was a high school dropout with a 9th grade education. But I went, took the SATs as they asked, got a good score, and was enrolled on a probationary basis, I’m sure at least partly due to the principal’s recommendation (thank you to Larry Liggett of Asheville High School!).

I continued to work full time at the barn and also went to college full time (they admitted me as a degree seeking student after I got A’s during my first semester). Because I knew how hard it was to make money without an education, because I had spent the previous year shovelling manure and riding bad tempered horses in the freezing rain, because I was paying my own tuition out of my own pocket, I hugely appreciated the value of this opportunity and I studied like crazy and worked very, very hard in college.

I graduated in 3 years, cum laude, and was admitted to a Ph.D program at Stanford University with a full fellowship and a stipend. Since then I’ve had a generally good career, moving from research to computer software development to technology consulting, and I am, I think, a success by most reasonable standards. Not bad for a high school dropout, right?

But, you say, I’m not really a high school dropout. I got a college degree, got a graduate degree. And yes, I did, and yes, that education was incredibly valuable. But this isn’t about whether education is worthwhile (spoiler: yes!), it’s about whether it should be forced on young people on a fixed schedule without them having any say about it, without regard for what else may be going on in their lives.

So, let’s examine an alternate universe, the one where dropping out, helping my mom, and seizing control of my own life is a criminal act.

I go to drop out at age 14. I’m told that it against the law.

Scenario One, I leave anyway, and am now a criminal truant at risk of being jailed, and having my mom jailed for not stopping me. For the crime of trying to make money so my mom and I don’t wind up homeless.

Scenario Two, I stay in school as I am forced to by law. My mom can’t pay our mortgage or buy our food. We go on public assistance, but still can’t afford the mortgage. We get foreclosed on and wind up homeless. Maybe, if all goes well, I graduate from high school and go to college anyway. Maybe not. But both my mom and I endure years of misery along the way, because I can’t help when help is most needed. Maybe I wind up in foster care, since my mom can’t support me. Or maybe I find a way to succeed and prosper anyway, but it’s harder, because I can’t legally take the path I believe to be in my own best interest. Because the goverment is forcing me to do what it thinks is best for me, and denying me the freedom to make my own choices.

So, Governor, before you pass a law that criminalizes teenagers who want to make their own choices, who might want or need to take a different path than the one the goverment thinks is best, I strongly urge you to think about my story. And think about the founding principles of this country: freedom and self-determination.

Lower the dropout age. While you’re at it, lower the working age. Let young people have more say in their own lives. It worked for me.