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Improving College Access and Success by Confronting Unplanned Pregnancy

Leadership Abstract

February 2014, Volume 27, Number 2

Editor's Note: This month, the articles in Leadership Abstracts, Learning Abstracts, and Innovation Showcase are provided by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Each article stands alone, offering insights into issues and challenges facing college students who are pregnant or become pregnant. Together, they provide information and details about resources community college educators can access and use to help students make informed choices that are right for them.

By George Boggs and Mary Ellen Duncan

Community college leaders today face significant challenges as they work to transform their institutions to improve outcomes, often in the face of diminishing resources. While we are moved by the successes of those students who overcome obstacles to complete their programs, and we celebrate the achievements of the students who transfer, graduate, and are employed in jobs with decent incomes, too many students don’t make it. Minority males deserve special attention, as their access and success rates in higher education represent a national tragedy. But many other students who should be able to complete college programs do not for a variety of reasons. Students who do not gain access to—or are not successful in completing—higher education or training are generally limited in their careers, and society loses because of these limitations.

There are many important initiatives underway to improve student retention and success.  However, a topic that can have a great impact on access and success has not yet been sufficiently addressed by college leaders: helping students to prevent unplanned pregnancy.  There are now some promising efforts underway to fill this gap that offer the potential to contribute to student success and completion. We encourage community college leaders to learn more about these efforts and begin to address a topic that can improve access and success rates for students in a sustainable and inexpensive way.

Community Colleges: The Big Picture

It may be tempting for some leaders to improve institutional completion rates by limiting access to those students who are most likely to be successful. This is the strategy that is used—with somewhat uneven success—by selective four-year institutions. If community colleges didn’t enroll students with significant basic skills weaknesses, evidence suggests that completion rates would increase. But this solution sacrifices access, one of the most important values of the community college movement. Fortunately, most community college leaders are looking for solutions to improve the success of all the students in their communities who take the first step at college. Research data indicate that large percentages of community college freshmen face significant barriers. Barriers often include lack of preparation in math, English, and reading; not understanding how best to study or how to function in a college; lack of an educational or career goal; insufficient financial resources and lack of knowledge about financial aid; limited transportation; difficult relationships at home or with a boy/girlfriend; single parenthood and lack of child care; and abuse of alcohol or drugs.

Just as the barriers are varied, there are many strategies being debated, studied, and implemented to improve student success rates—mandatory orientation, elimination of late registration, required classes in student success skills, first-year experience programs, summer bridge programs, increased information about financial aid, workshops on how to budget time, and mentoring and coaching, to name a few. While many of these programs are beginning to prove their effectiveness, some can be expensive, and there are questions about sustainability.

There are many worthwhile foundations and organizations advocating various ways to help our colleges with efforts to improve student access and success. The Lumina Foundation for Education, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, MetLife Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and others have funded several demonstration projects that are intended to improve access and success rates. Achieving the Dream, Community Colleges Count, Complete College America, and the Center for Community College Student Engagement are among those efforts that are most prominent in working with community colleges and state systems to help colleges to improve. While these foundations and organizations are making a difference, there is one very important strategy that is not yet on their list.

Preventing Unplanned Pregnancy at Community Colleges

Unplanned pregnancies can increase emotional, time, and financial stress on the young women and men involved, which can impede academic performance. In fact, unplanned births account for nearly one in 10 dropouts among female students at community colleges, and 7 percent of dropouts among community college students overall (Prentice, Storin, and Robinson 2012). This relatively modest proportion still translates into a significant number of students who experience an unplanned pregnancy or have a child while enrolled. In addition, the impact on these students is significant—61percent of community college students who have children after enrolling do not finish their education, which is 65 percent higher than for women who do not have children while in college (Bradburn, 2002).

You may not know it, but there has been significant progress in reducing teen pregnancy in the U.S.; between its peak in 1991 and 2012, the teen birth rate declined 52 percent (Martin, Hamilton, Osterman, Curtin, & Matthews, 2013). While still higher than other industrialized countries, this shows progress is possible. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen such progress among young adults. While the vast majority of unmarried young adults report they don’t want to get pregnant right now, there are 1.3 million pregnancies a year to unmarried women in their 20s (The National Campaign, 2012). The overall rate of unplanned pregnancy among this cohort has remained stuck at high levels, and is increasingly concentrated among disadvantaged young women (The National Campaign, 2012). Considering the demographics of our community college population, this is something we need to pay more attention to.

In addition, roughly 15 percent of community college students are single parents (Horn and Nevill, 2006). Colleges have traditionally done what they can to support them by developing childcare centers and helping them with financial aid, which we can all agree is very important. However, we have not done a very good job about helping our students to avoid unplanned and unwanted pregnancies in the first place. If colleges had programs to provide students—both those who do and those who do not have children—with relevant information, skills, and resources to help them avoid unplanned pregnancy, one very significant barrier could be overcome.

It’s easy to assume that by the time they enroll in college students already know how to prevent pregnancy, but in truth that’s not always the case. Perhaps they did not receive sex education in middle or high school, or they received it at a time that it wasn’t yet relevant, so they did not give it their full attention. One student said, “We took sex education, but I don’t even remember what they taught us… I wasn’t having sex in high school, so I wasn’t interested” (The National Campaign, 2011). Additionally, some students did not have this conversation at home. Whatever the reason they did not receive this information, college presents an opportunity for students to learn about this topic at a time when they very much need it.

How to Address the Topic of Preventing Unplanned Pregnancy

College faculty and Student Services personnel address many personal issues that students face, and unplanned pregnancy should be one of them. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (The National Campaign), a research-based nonprofit, non-partisan organization, has been working with colleges around the country to develop free resources that faculty can use on their campuses. Here are three ideas for how to bring the topic to your campus.

Integrate information about unplanned pregnancy into academic courses. After faculty and staff at Montgomery College in Maryland learned that students were interested in talking about preventing unplanned pregnancy, they participated in a joint project between the American Association of Community Colleges and The National Campaign to incorporate the topic into academic courses. Through the Make It Personal: College Completion (MIPCC) project, the Back Off Baby image was created by student Jackie Imirie in a graphic design class. The assignment was to create a public service announcement poster about preventing unplanned pregnancy that would appeal to her fellow students. 

Six colleges in Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, and Texas participated in MIPCC, incorporating the topic into more than 20 disciplines. Course templates that were developed through this project are available for free download at www.aacc.nche.edu/mipcc for subjects including English, sociology, statistics, and College 101. Faculty members who incorporated discussion of unplanned pregnancy into their courses have found that discussing this topic increases student engagement, supports learning outcomes, and meets academic course objectives. 

“I found that having a topic to work toward enhanced my class and was well worth any extra time on my part,” said Kari Taylor, a statistics instructor at Mesa Community College in Arizona. ”"It brings the course to life so much more than having students gather data on random topics.”

For more background about unplanned pregnancy among college students, stories from students themselves, and what students think they know about preventing unplanned pregnancy, download Make It Personal: How Pregnancy Planning and Prevention Help Students Complete College, published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Incorporate information about unplanned pregnancy into student support services, including orientation, first-year experiences, and other college success courses. In other colleges, faculty and Student Services personnel have used three online lessons developed by The National Campaign to help students understand the impact an unplanned pregnancy can have on their education and the options available to avoid it. The lessons are flexible and easy-to-use, and faculty can offer them without having to become experts on the topic themselves. There are many videos and engaging online resources, so students enjoy completing them. Many have found them helpful; for example, one student said, “They were casual and easy for young people to listen to,” and another noted, “Everything was educational and informative.” Furthermore, the lessons have been evaluated and were found to improve students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intent when it comes to preventing unplanned pregnancy (The National Campaign, 2013).

The lessons, materials to help faculty get started, and evaluation results are available free at http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/onlinelessons/facultypage.aspx.

Raise awareness and provide resources about the connection between unplanned pregnancy and completion through college websites and student activities. An easy way to provide students with resources, StudentSexLife.org is a user-friendly portal that provides links to reliable sources of information about sex and relationships. Colleges can include it in their online orientations, websites, courses, and other places where it will help their students make smart decisions. For example, Richland College in Dallas, TX, has included StudentSexLife.org among its resources from the Office of Student Life and from Health Services, and has provided the website to students participating in orientation and athletics programs.

It is also possible to involve student leaders and groups such as student government and Phi Theta Kappa. Student organizations lend credibility and enthusiasm for this topic, and student-driven activities can dovetail with colleges’ interest in promoting student service and leadership.

Taking the Next Step to Support Student Success

Leaders are now expected to improve student success rates. We can no longer resist change or avoid addressing the personal matters that make it harder for students to stay focused on reaching educational goals. As one of us has said elsewhere,

…. given the challenges we face today, ‘muddling through’ brings even greater risks. Every decision that is made and every policy that is proposed must be data-informed, and policy makers and leaders need the courage to ask how the change will affect student learning, student success, and college costs. Existing policies and practices should be examined with the same questions in mind. Faculty and staff need to be free of restraining practices so they can experiment with strategies to engage students and to help them to learn. (George Boggs, Inside Higher Education, September 12, 2013)

Colleges are changing their policies because we realize that we must do a better job of getting our students to the finish line. We are providing more structure, requiring students to develop educational plans, encouraging them to pay bills on time, requiring them to register prior to class, making orientation mandatory, and requiring a student success course. We also have an opportunity to offer relevant information that will support students in making thoughtful decisions about sex, relationships, and family. The good news is there are now promising no- or low-cost strategies to engage students on a topic that is relevant in their lives and that will support them in reaching their educational goals. The time for leadership is now!

Representatives from The National Campaign invite you to get in touch with them about how to get started. To learn more about available resources, including customized training webinars for you and your colleagues about how to use the online lessons, please contact Chelsey Storin, manager of college initiatives, at cstorin@thenc.org or 202.478.8519.


Bradburn, E. M. (2002). Short-term enrollment in postsecondary education: Student background and institutional differences in reasons for early departure, 1996–98. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Horn, L., & Nevill, S. (2006). Pro?le of undergraduates in U.S. postsecondary education institutions: 2003–04. Special analysis of community college students. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Kost, K., & Henshaw, S. (2012). U.S. teenage pregnancies, births and abortions, 2008: National trends by age, race and ethnicity. New York: Guttmacher Institute.

Martin, J. A., Hamilton, B. E., Osterman, M. J. K., Curtin, S. C., & Matthews, T. J. (2013). Births: Final Data for 2012. National Vital Statistics Reports, 62(9).Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2011). Briefly: Relationships and contraceptive use among community college students. Washington, DC: Author.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2012). Briefly: Unplanned pregnancy among unmarried young women. Washington, DC: Author.

Prentice, M., Storin, C., & Robinson, G. (2012). Make it personal: How pregnancy planning and prevention help students complete college. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.

George R. Boggs is President and CEO Emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and Superintendent/President Emeritus of Palomar College. He is a clinical faculty member for the Roueche Graduate Center at National American University and an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral program at San Diego State University. He is an active consultant and author. Mary Ellen Duncan is a Leadership Coach for Achieving the Dream, Senior Consultant with R. H. Perry & Associates where she does community college presidential searches, and President Emerita at Howard Community College in Maryland.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.


Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 01/27/2014 at 8:47 AM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -