A few years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a study called "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts."
Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted four focus groups with a diverse population of 16-to-24-year-olds in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
It wasn't a scientific sample, and the experiences of young urbanites would differ from someone coming of age in rural or small town Kentucky. Still the findings offer some striking perspectives that should inform the debate in Kentucky's legislature about raising the compulsory school attendance age to 18.
Of the dropouts who were surveyed, 74 percent said they would have stayed in school if they had it to do over, and 66 percent said they would have worked harder if expectations had been higher.
By allowing youngsters to drop out at 16, Kentucky is telegraphing low expectations, which is a disservice to the state's youngsters and its future.
Thirty-eight percent of the surveyed dropouts said they had too much freedom and not enough rules in their lives.
The legislature can't make up for neglectful parenting, but it can, like 21 other states and the District of Columbia, establish an expectation for all youngsters: You'll be in school until you're 18, so make the most of it.
Eleven other states have a dropout age of 17. In Kentucky, it's been 16 since 1920.
The vast majority of dropouts who regret leaving school have a realistic understanding of their future.
The economic and social downsides of dropping out are vast — not just for the dropouts but also for the rest of us, who will be paying in various ways to support them and their bad choice for the rest of their lives.
The arguments we keep hearing against raising the dropout age are that there's no new money to help schools begin alternative programs and that surly 16-and 17-year-olds will disrupt learning for more serious students.
These concerns are understandable, but they underestimate Kentucky's educators and its youngsters.
Kentucky educators will adopt the approach of Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton, who, as Daviess County superintendent, was on the statewide panel that recommended raising the dropout age and still supports it because it's the best thing for students.
Also, the programs, early interventions and teaching styles that schools develop to keep potential dropouts engaged will benefit other students, as well.
House Bill 216 which has cleared the House Education Committee and its twin, Senate Bill 52, sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, give schools, kids and parents until 2016, plenty of time, to prepare for the change.
As for the cost, the price of letting youngsters drop out will be many, many, many times the cost of educating them.