Connection Between Decline in Teen Birth Rate and Rise in High School Graduation Rate?

Image Credit: DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

Shortly after U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in January of this year that the U.S. high school graduation rate had reached 80 percent (for the school year 2010-2011)—the highest in American history—a piece appeared in U.S. News & World Report applauding our national success.  This progress reflects a steady increase in graduation rates (75.5% for 2008-2009 and 78.2% for 2009-2010).  However, the underlying message in this article is that there are still too many students who drop out and educators must focus their efforts on students who show early signs of dropping out. 

While this call to action isn’t so unusual, what caught my attention was the suggestion that “prevention….and community support are the keys to ensure that all students graduate.”  Although dropout prevention in this context was more about students at risk for chronic absenteeism and students in need of academic support and alternative programs, teen pregnancy is also a risk factor that can derail a student’s chances of graduating high school on time. 

Consider this: There is a close association between teen childbearing and educational attainment: 30 percent of teen girls who have dropped out of high school cite pregnancy or parenthood as a reason; only 38 percent of teen girls who have a child before age 18 get a high school diploma by age 22.  To take it a step further, less than two percent of young teen mothers attain a college degree by age 30.  If we consider the intentions of teens themselves, nearly all teens (97% of girls and 94% of boys) believe it is important for them to avoid getting pregnant/ getting someone pregnant at this time in their lives.  Simply put, students don’t want to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy.  Educators want to reduce the dropout rate even further and help students graduate high school with their peers.  As the article states, “if students feel like their teachers and community care about them, they are more likely to graduate.”  

According to an education consultant for the Iowa Department of Education who deals with dropout prevention, the simplest strategies are often the most effective.  So what would happen to these students if their teachers, school leaders and districts made teen pregnancy a priority in dropout prevention strategies?  What would happen if educators and those who focus on teen pregnancy prevention came together at the federal, state, and local levels in a coordinated effort?

With that backdrop, here is something to think about: The declines in the teen birth rate occurred at the same time the U.S. high school graduation rates increased.  The U.S. teen birth rate has fallen by 52 percent since its high-water mark in 1991.  Progress has been wide and deep, with gains in all 50 states and among all racial/ethnic groups.  Declines have been particularly steep in recent years with a decrease of 6 percent between 2011 and 2012, 8 percent in the previous year, and by nearly one-third (29%) since 2007.  Could there be a connection between the decline in the teen birth rate and the increase in the graduation rate?  Could this be an indication that if we reduce teen pregnancy, we can reduce high school dropout?   What would the graduation rate be if the teen birth rate had not declined?  Put another way, how much did the decline in the teen birth rate contribute to the increase in the graduation rate?

President Obama set a goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020.  To be sure, being able to say that four out of five students graduate within four years of entering high school is huge progress.  However, would we be able to shore up our chances of reaching that 90 percent (or higher) mark if educators and those who address teen pregnancy prevention—particularly those in school districts with graduation rates below the national average—collaborated in the development of strategies to help students before they drop out?  With the future of our children and the prospects for our country at stake, is there any reason not to?

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I really found this article helpful and I plan to use (and cite) it in my master's thesis project. Thanks for your hard work!

The statistics I see for graduation rates after teen childbearing range from the 38% you cited to 50%, as in this CDC article: . Do you know why they are inconsistent? Thanks!

Thank you for your question. Both data points come from the same source of information, but refer to teens who became mothers at different ages. The data point in our blog, “only 38 percent of teen girls who have a child before age 18 get a high school diploma by age 22” refers to teens who became mothers before age 18. The statistic you highlight from CDC’s website refers to the percentage (51%) of all teen mothers—including those who became mothers when they were 18 or 19—who get a high school diploma by age 22 as compared with 89 percent of women who didn’t have a teen birth.

For more information about the connection between teen childbearing and educational attainment, please visit: