An 18-year-old attended an online high school in Detroit for young mothers, in 2015. Credit: Erin Einhorn for The Hechinger Report

With U.S. high school graduation rates surpassing 84 percent and hitting record highs, year after year, it’s easy to forget that there are still pockets of people for whom graduating from high school is still a big challenge. One is special-needs students. Another is teen moms.

It’s particularly tempting to overlook this latter group because of the rapid decline in teen pregnancies over the last 25 years. The teen birth rate plunged more than 60 percent from 1991 to 2014, the most recent year of data. But it is hardly a problem solved. Nearly a quarter million teenage girls, ages 15 to 19, gave birth to babies in 2014.

What happens to the education of these young women?

Only 53 percent of women in their twenties who first became mothers when they were teenagers completed a traditional high school degree, according to a January 2018 report released by the nonprofit research organization Child Trends. Another 17 percent earned their high-school equivalency diploma by passing the GED test. By contrast, 90 percent of women who did not give birth as teens obtained a traditional high school diploma.

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“We should maintain a focus on preventing teen births, but we also need to help improve the educational attainment of women once they become teen parents,” said Jennifer Manlove, a sociologist at Child Trends who co-authored the report. “Improving outcomes for young mothers can often improve outcomes for their children.”

Manlove emphasizes the importance of traditional high school degrees because, she said, they’re more highly rewarded on the job market than GED diplomas. And traditional high school degrees are more likely to lead to college, she said.

Manlove and her co-author Hannah Lantos arrived at these graduation figures by analyzing a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Called the National Survey of Family Growth, it’s primarily focused on trends in family life, such as marriage and divorce, pregnancy, infertility and the use of contraception.  But it also happens to ask respondents about their educational attainment. So the Child Trend researchers combed through the 2011-2015 surveys for female respondents in their twenties who said they had had a baby during their teenage years, and looked to see if they had completed a high school degree or its equivalent.

The first surprising finding is that even with the declining teen birth rates, 18 percent of American women ages 20-29 had had a baby in their teen years. That’s nearly one out of five. Years after giving birth, 30 percent of them had neither a high school degree nor its equivalent. That’s a lot of people who don’t have good employment prospects, and are likely to need some form of government welfare. Not to mention millions of children who might benefit from having a more educated, employable mother as they grow up.

The second striking finding is how finishing high school differs considerably by race. Latina mothers were the least likely to finish their high school degrees. Only 47 percent did. Roughly 45 percent of them obtained no credential at all.

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Black mothers were the most likely to finish high school, with 62 percent obtaining traditional diplomas. Whites were in between, with 53 percent finishing high school. (See bar chart.)

The darker, bottom part of the bars represent traditional high school degrees. The pastel portions at the top of each bar represent GED diplomas. Credit: Child Trends analysis of NSFG 2011-15 data, accessed through the National Center for Health Statistics

Manlove says that community attitudes might explain these racial and ethnic differences. She also speculates that low-income black teens may have already overcome hardships that have made them more resilient to life’s disruptions and better able to cope with the sudden demands of motherhood.

At the same time, in many low-income black communities, teenagers often remain at home during their pregnancies and after they give birth, she said. Their families help a lot with childcare as the teens complete school. “Girls who stay at home are more likely to stay in school,” said Manlove.

By contrast, young Latinas often leave home when they get pregnant, cohabitating with their partners.  “These living arrangements may be less conducive to completing school,” said Manlove.

Another theory is that many young Latina mothers had uneducated parents themselves, especially those born outside the United States, and they are less inclined to pressure their daughters to finish high school.

Because teen moms’ reasons for dropping out vary, it will take different types of solutions to keep more of them in school. Many drop out of school before they become pregnant. Re-engaging unmotivated teens who don’t enjoy studying is a big part of the challenge.

Others get pregnant first and drop out of school afterward because it’s hard to juggle motherhood with classes and homework. There is controversy over how best to help them stay in school. Some argue for the expansion of separate schools, expressly designed for pregnant women and young mothers. Others say that young mothers would feel less stigmatized and be more likely to complete their degrees on time if they continued at a regular high school with the help of extra childcare.

More research is needed, even as teen birth rates decline, on educating teen moms. It’s one of the few tools that policymakers have to break the cycle of poverty between generations.

Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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