Easy Access to Contraception May Boost the High School Graduation Rates of Teenage Girls

A new study led by Amanda Stevenson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that when teenage girls in Colorado had access to free and low-cost birth control through a statewide program, the percentage of students who left high school before graduating decreased by 14 percent.

The authors found that increased access to birth control led to lower birth and abortion rates. The study, which used U.S. Census data to track more than 170,000 women for up to seven years, suggests that better access to contraception improves women’s lives.

Researchers centered their study on the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, a 2009 program that rapidly expanded access to more forms of contraception in the state. Funded by a $27 million grant from a private donor, it enabled state-run clinics supported by federal Title X funding to provide every FDA-approved contraceptive method available to every client — both inexpensive forms of birth control and more costly, long-acting reversible contraception, including intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants. Research shows during the first five years of the program, use of long-acting reversible contraceptives increased by nearly 17 percent. From 2009 to 2015 — a period of six years beginning with the program’s inception — birth and abortion rates in Colorado both dropped by half among teens ages 15 to 19 and by 20 percent among women ages 20 to 24.

The percentage of women with a high school diploma increased to 92 percent in Colorado in the same period, compared to 88 percent before the Colorado Family Planning Initiative was implemented. Researchers said about half of that gain was due to the program. The number of young women who left high school before graduating in the state decreased by 14 percent – that’s an additional 3,800 Colorado women born between 1994 and 1996 who earned their high school diploma.

The easy access to birth control for young women in Colorado is “probably is helping some of them avoid pregnancy before they want pregnancy, and it’s probably also helping others of them invest in their education because they have a greater sense of autonomy over their reproductive futures,” said Dr. Stevenson. “Supporting access to contraception does not eliminate disparities in high school graduation, but we find that it can contribute significantly to narrowing them.”

Dr. Stevenson is a graduate of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin.

The full study, “The Impact of Contraceptive Access on High School Graduation,” was published on the website of the journal Science Advances. It may be accessed here.

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