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How to Make the College Dream Possible

Amidst the celebration and ceremony of graduation season, it is easy to overlook the young people who made it to the graduation stage against seemingly insurmountable odds, and to forget about those who will not be graduating because the odds were stacked so highly against them.

Fewer than 2% of teen mothers nationally who have a child before age 18 go on to complete college before age 30. This means that the vast majority are likely to be living in poverty along with their children. The teen pregnancy rate in DC exceeds the national average, and children of teen parents face systemic barriers to their early growth and development. Many lack stable housing and adequate healthcare. In fact, nearly half of DC's homeless youth are parents under age 24 living on the streets with their children due to a lack of education. Even with national teen pregnancy rates on the decline, teen pregnancy is still a major issue in certain communities and the consequences of teen pregnancies that happened decades ago are still being felt today. We have seen recent coverage about this in NPR and The Atlantic.

When teen parents earn college degrees, their children benefit and the overall health and vitality of our communities are greatly improved. The reality is that education is the great leveler -- creating opportunity and opening doors that would never have been opened. For a population that has long been left out of the higher education system, a degree is game changing -- not only for the parent but also for the child. Quality early childhood supports can predict academic and career success well into their future. This is one way to dismantle poverty -- to provide college completion support and early childhood services for two populations that are dismissed regarding their potential and dreams. This support will increase the likelihood that an entire young family will move out of poverty.

As a former teen mother myself, I know firsthand the struggle of being a young parent and how the increase in salary that a college degree brings can change the fate of a young family. While working with teen parents at Generation Hope, I have seen the grit and determination that so many young people have to create better lives for their children. Research shows that parenting college students have higher GPA’s than their peers even though they are more stretched for time than their peers with courses, working, and raising children. Of the Scholars who were supported by Generation Hope, 92% of them are employed full time and/or enrolled in a graduate studies program within six months of graduating, paving the way for self-sufficiency and a bright future for themselves and their family.

What can we do as a community to support the success of teen parents? Financial support is part of the solution, but there are so many other ways to contribute time, resources, and talents.

  • Mentoring. Teenage parents need what we all need—not only financial means, but the support of someone who cares and believes in their vision for their future. In fact, 87% of Generation Hope Scholars reported that when they felt overwhelmed, they were more likely to continue with college because of their relationship with their mentor. Young people need to see themselves in successful people who care about them.

  • Expanding social capital. For many of us, our networks provide valuable connections to jobs, internships, and other opportunities for success. Teen parents need help with networking, and getting connected to people and resources that may not currently exist in their circles. They need to connect with other teen parents at conferences and workshops and see former teen parents who are now leading productive lives.

  • Building valuable skill sets. Members of the community can help with mock interviews, networking, resume reviewing, and trainings on topics that include job searching, effective interview techniques, parenting, self care, and more.

  • Empowering children of teen parents. Because children of teen parents often score lower on measures of kindergarten readiness and have lower vocabulary, math, and reading scores, we need to design programs and provide resources that prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

  • Collaborating. As we implement these important strategies, it is important to realize that no one organization or person has the answers or can do this work on their own. At Generation Hope, we are fortunate to be a part of several collaborations.  A great example is the College Completion Colleagues (C3) Initiative, supported by the Scheidel Foundation and the Crimsonbridge Foundation. The Initiative brings together organizations that offer individualized support to help young people access, complete, and thrive in college. By sharing resources and lessons learned, we are not only providing a service or creating a community but also building a movement.

Investing in these young families today will have an impact on them and our communities for generations to come. I hope the joys of this graduation season will inspire us to make a college degree possible for all students who dream of walking across the graduation stage.