Why Teen Mothers Don't Graduate from College

Virtually all reputable studies show that teen mothers are significantly more motivated to attend college after giving birth than they were before becoming pregnant, often citing as motivation their desire to provide a better life for their children.

And yet, their college attainment rate is spectacularly low. While approximately 36% of the overall American population attain at least a bachelor's degree, only 1.5% of women who became mothers as teenagers graduate from college. Teen mothers have the lowest college attainment rate of any demographic group in the U.S. — lower even than incarcerated felons, 12.7% of whom have a bachelor's degree. And their lack of education impacts not just themselves but also their children because without an education these women aren't able to pull their families out of poverty.

"Teen mothers have the lowest college attainment rate of any demographic group in the U.S. — lower even than incarcerated felons, 12.7% of whom have a bachelor's degree."

What's the Problem?

Universities are locking young mothers out. We surveyed and visited colleges throughout California and found the same problems at all of them: Housing is inappropriate for single teens with young children, course scheduling restrictions don't allow moms to manage their babies while attending classes, and campus representatives are painfully underinformed about the needs of single mothers and the solutions that might meet those needs.

But the biggest problem by far — the problem that locks teen mothers out of college and into a life of dependency — is childcare. And that problem is being masked and, therefore, perpetuated by the way the data is reported. Even the best research organizations in the country are falling short on this issue. Their reports indicate that the percentage of colleges with campus-based childcare is fairly high in most states. But they either fail to report or they deemphasize the fact that those childcare centers aren't available to student mothers.

Driving California

We too read the reports, but then we visited campus childcare centers across the state and found that the data was misleading. It's true that California is among the leaders in terms of campuses with childcare centers, but with only two exceptions, every school we visited had a waitlist for childcare seats that they claimed could take up to two years to clear. And every representative emphasized to us that they could not guarantee a college applicant a childcare seat should she be admitted to the university.

In other words, inadequate childcare centers force teen mothers into an impossible scenario: In order to improve their conditions, they have to apply to college, enroll in classes, move to campus, pay the associated expenses and then face the reality that they may have to drop out because they can't secure a childcare seat in the university's facility. This is the norm, and it's why so few teen mothers apply to college. This isn't information that shows up in the data. To understand why teen moms don't apply to college, one needs to drive.

The Voucher System

It turns out that California has a fairly robust voucher system that pays for childcare services while the mother is in class. It isn't perfect, and there are often multiple, confusing options that vary by county, but there are in fact solutions that allow mothers to cover the full cost of childcare while in school — the most obvious example being the voucher system funded and administered by the California Department of Education.

The problem is that because of ignorance and apathy, many campus childcare centers don't accept the vouchers. In fact, a surprising number of facilities are unaware that they exist. The end result is that young single mothers are locked out — not just of childcare but also of college.

The Bottom Line

For all practical purposes, university childcare centers exist only as phantoms. They appear on paper, but a 17-year-old mother desperate to attend college will be told that she can't be guaranteed a spot for her child. Because of ignorance, she won't be informed that a voucher system exists; because of apathy, university administrators won't improve the situation on their own. And their appalling indifference to the fate of these young women is made worse by the fact that fixing the problem isn't all that difficult.