Can President Obama really stop kids from dropping out of high school?

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama called for requiring anyone who has not already graduated from high school or turned 18 to remain in school.

Eight percent of Americans between ages 16 and 24 don’t have a high school diploma or a GED, according to the Department of Education, and the number is higher for African-Americans than whites (9 percent versus 5). In an economy in which there is heavy competition for nearly every job opening, lacking a high school diploma can be a serious barrier to work.

Obama urged the states to impose this requirement, and the White House has no plans to give states additional funding or take it away if they don’t comply with the president’s request. The idea was more of a call to action by Obama than a specific initiative.

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“As a nation, we have a shared responsibility to ensure American workers have the skills to succeed. The president highlighted a variety of ways we can all do our part,” said Kevin Lewis, a White House spokesman. “Last night, the president called for partnerships between businesses and community colleges, stressed the importance of a great teacher in every classroom, and asked states to step up — as many already have — by requiring students to stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

Twenty states already require kids to stay in school until age 18, including California. In some states, parents can be fined not pushing their children to attend school; in others, kids ages 16 and 17 may not be able to get a driver’s license if it is found they do not attend school, according to a 2009 report by the Massachusetts-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.

The center found little correlation between the laws and high school graduation rates. In fact, some of the states that allow kids to leave school after age 16 had lower dropout rates than states with these laws, which have been proven very difficult to enforce.

Other research has arrived at more optimistic conclusions. A 1991 paper co-written by Alan Krueger, now chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, estimated “25 percent of potential dropouts remain in school because of compulsory schooling laws.”

The president’s aim of course is not wrong. Research shows people who graduate from high school have much higher earnings over the course of their lifetimes than those that do not. But it’s unclear if even the president can effectively take on this issue.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr