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.

Under North Carolina's “compulsory education” laws, children between the ages of seven 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.

The Legal Dropout Age in North Carolina

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 (2019).)

In a pilot program, the state authorized at least two school districts to raise the dropout age to 18. The State Board of Education reported to the legislature on the results of the pilot program, and it may be expanded to other districts.

Driving Restrictions and Other Costs of Dropping Out

Most people know that dropping out of school is likely to bring financial costs down the road. But dropouts may face more immediate consequences. North Carolina residents who are under 18 years old and don’t have a high school diploma (or its equivalent) can’t get a driver’s license or learner's permit unless they meet one of the following requirements:

  • 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) (2019).)

Also, under North Carolina's truancy laws, students younger than 16 could potentially wind up in juvenile court as "habitual truants" if they simply stop going to school.

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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