Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Knocked Up...and Knocked Out?

Maybe I'm just a little too sensitive these days. After all, women at the end of their third trimester can be like that. But when I read about a new campaign, one to prevent unplanned pregnancies among community college students, I was a bit taken aback.

According to the nonpartisan group in charge, 48% of community college students "have ever been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant." And this is a problem, the group contends, because dropout rates are higher among students who get pregnant while in college. So, presumably in order to increase degree attainment in the public two-year sector, we need to slow this trend and prevent unplanned pregnancies.

Ok, on the face of it, this seems like a plausible argument and approach. After all, it's hard enough to get a degree while working full-time, let alone while parenting too. And sure, there's plenty of research suggesting that the children of planned pregnancies are more likely to be raised in stable, intact families-- and to benefit from that arrangement. With college being the new high school, it makes some sense to continue the conversation about healthy relationships and safe sex in the postsecondary environment. And bringing social and health services onto campus makes everyone's lives a bit easier. All good things.

But something about this effort worries me. Let's go back to those initial stats-- nearly half of all students attending community college either have been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant. Well, the average age of a community college student is 29, and nearly 60% of community college students are women. Furthermore, we know that childbearing has a time horizon-- the peak age of fertility and egg qualityis around 27. So, all this statistic tells me is that many community college students are parents--which could mean that after becoming parents adults are more likely to choose to attend a community college or that attending community college increases the likelihood of getting pregnant. Which do you believe? And in a society that values children and higher education, what is the optimal percentage of community college students who should have had this experience?

These aren't easy questions to answer. We could try and make it simpler to accept the Campaign's argument by focusing on what seems negative-- college dropout. But it's not entirely clear that these are causal effects-- that getting pregnant causes college dropout. Sure, that seems like a rational connection, but it's also plausible that an overwhelming (biological?) desire to have a child now-- even an unspoken, "unintended" desire-- leads some to get pregnant and also drives a decision to leave college (for now). What's most important is that we see women returning to college after having children-- so these aren't dropouts, so much as stopouts.

We might also ask ourselves, what is the function of the American community college, if not to serve as the "second chance" institution where adults can return to resume an education after starting a family? Participating in this campaign must cause at least some community college leaders to pause and wrestle with that question. Doesn't the community college have the potential to be one of the healthier educational institutions, where real life meets academic life-- and childbearing and parenting occur without the usual stigma? After all, this is a place where we educate adults-- not teenagers.

I'll raise just a few more thoughts before leaving it open to discussion (which I have no doubt this little post will generate):

1) There's some evidence that rates of college entry and completion are lowered not by childbearing, but by marriage. In fact, unmarried mothers are more likely than married mothers to attend college. Sure, again, that's not necessarily a causal relationship-- but shall we begin to discourage marriage among community college students too?

2) There's also evidence that while parents finish college at lower rates, that's largely a function of having to take longer to finish. They tend to work and enroll part-time, so when we look at a typical window of time for completion, their rates look low. Give them longer, and parents finish up. Is this a problem? I can only argue yes from a purely economic perspective that says the sooner the economic returns begin, the better.

And that perspective is one that may be limiting our views here. After all, don't we treasure higher education for its intergenerational benefits-- what it allows us to pass on from parents to children? Presumably these benefits only occur if we do, in fact, have kids. Some demographers (and also some right-wingers) are concerned with the delays in fertiility among college-educated women -- and we're bringing pregnancy prevention efforts into colleges?

It's all a bit confusing. We don't want students to get knocked up and knocked out, sure. But maybe instead of trying to alter student behavior we should instead invest more in supportive services to help parenting students complete degrees? The Campaign notes that community colleges already offer childcare-- but it doesn't make it clear that campus childcare centers are notoriously over-enrolled, and sometimes too expensive. Increasing the availability of high-quality, inexpensive, on-campus childcare seems like another good way to promote degree completion among parenting students. Another approach would be to increase students' financial aid so that they can afford to purchase decent health care, to ensure healthy pregnancies and healthy children.

If the Campaign has an unintended side effect of stigmatizing pregnant and/or parenting students attending community college, it will have more than failed-- it will have made things worse. We have enough anti-child environments already. Efforts like this one should proceed very, very carefully.