As they tossed their graduation caps in the air a few days ago, my daughter and about 500 classmates took a big step toward adulthood. Some are off to four-year colleges, a few are taking time to test the job market or explore the world on their own, and the rest—a good number—are headed to community college for an associate’s degree and future opportunities for work or further education. These bright and energetic young people are starting down a path toward learning and earning. Cheering for them at this turning point lifted my heart about the country’s future.
For many graduates, attending one of the country’s 1,000-plus community colleges is an attractive and affordable option—and, for some, a crucial stepping stone to a set of opportunities that their parents never had. The 12 million community college students in the U.S. disproportionately come from lower income families that have historically been underrepresented in higher education: almost 40 percent African American, Latino, or Asian American and Pacific Islander, and more than half are women. Community colleges are so important to social mobility in the U.S., in fact, that earlier this year the White House proposed the America’s College Promise initiative, which anticipates supporting two tuition-free years at a community college for eligible students.
But to succeed, they have to finish their course of study and make it to the next graduation ceremony. That doesn’t happen by accident.
A key strategy to make sure community college students have the best chance at success is to help them protect themselves against unintended pregnancy. While the teen birth rate has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, there hasn’t been nearly as much progress made in reducing unplanned pregnancies among twenty-somethings—even those young people who have big plans for their futures. And a pregnancy can be devastating to their education. Unplanned births account for almost one in ten drop-outs among female students at community colleges, and male students also have difficulty completing a course of study if they have to deal with the responsibilities of becoming a father.
But the opportunity to help community college students goes way beyond creating educational content. The National Campaign has also worked at the state level to encourage community colleges to help students prevent unplanned pregnancy. Just last year, Mississippi passed a law—the first of its kind in the country—directing community college and higher education leaders to develop a plan to address unplanned pregnancy. In March, the legislature appropriated funds to each of the state’s community colleges to take action, and the National Campaign is providing technical assistance as the schools prepare to start up activities later this year.
Mississippi’s actions inspired legislators in Arkansas, who enacted similar legislation in March 2015. The National Campaign is now working closely with higher education groups and others as they begin to tackle the challenge of unplanned pregnancy at Arkansas community colleges and public universities.
As young people strive for the opportunities that education makes possible, they need the information, support, and services to keep them in school, and to make sure they become parents only when they’re ready for that responsibility. Community colleges can be—and should be—a crucial ally in that effort.