Teenage Parents’ Educational Attainment Is Affected More by Available Resources than by Parenthood

Lisa Melhado, Guttmacher Institute

First published online:

| DOI: https://doi.org/10.1363/3918407_5

For teenage parents, the availability of material resources has a greater effect on educational attainment than parenthood, according to an analysis of data from the 1988–2000 waves of the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS).1 Overall, by age 26, those who became parents as teenagers had 11.9 years of education; those who did not had 13.9 years. However, having access to resources can diminish the two-year "educational penalty" paid by teenage parents—for teenage fathers, living with one’s parents and working less than half-time can narrow the gap, and for teenage mothers, having child care resources is most important.

Research has shown that teenage parents have poorer educational outcomes than their childless peers, but the focus has been on the resources available to teenagers before they became parents. In the NELS analysis, the researcher explored the effect on educational attainment by age 26 of the material resources available to teenagers after they became parents. In addition, and in contrast to most research, the analyst examined both women and men who had been teenage parents, hypothesizing that if resources limit educational attainment, they should do so for both genders.

The NELS, using a clustered, stratified national probability sample of nearly 25,000 U.S. eighth graders enrolled in public and private schools in 1988, gathered school- and individual-level information on education, employment and other aspects of life. Follow-up surveys were conducted two, four, six and 12 years after the baseline for both students and dropouts; most respondents were 26 at the time of the 2000 follow-up. All respondents who participated in all waves of the survey, who took the math and reading tests given by the NELS in 1988 and whose parents completed questionnaires in 1988 and 1992 were included in the analytic sample. The final sample comprised 8,432 respondents, 356 (4%) of whom had become teenage parents by 1992, when most respondents were graduating from high school. Bivariate analyses were used to examine the differences between these young adults and their peers who remained childless through 1992; linear regression models estimated the effects of resources, parenthood status, and demographic and educational characteristics on the respondents’ educational attainment.

The vast majority of respondents who became parents as teenagers, but a significantly smaller proportion of their peers who did not, were female—86% vs. 48%. Higher proportions of those who had been teenage parents than of other participants were black, Latino and Native American; lower proportions were white and Asian. Compared with respondents who did not have children during adolescence, those who did had been socially, economically and educationally disadvantaged by eighth grade in 1988—they had lived in communities where higher proportions of students participated in school lunch programs; they had had lower family socioeconomic status and educational aspirations; a lower proportion had lived with two parents; and higher proportions had had behavioral problems and had been left back in school. In 1992, a lower proportion of respondents who became teenage parents than of those who did not had lived with two parents; higher proportions of the former than of the latter had lived with neither parent and worked 20 or more hours a week. By 2000, the respondents who had not had children as teenagers had had, on average, 13.9 years of education; those who had been teenage parents had attained an average of 11.9 years of education.

Analyses controlling for baseline demographic and educational factors indicated that teenage mothers paid a penalty of 0.78 fewer years of educational attainment; the penalty for teenage fathers was 0.66 years. In this model, having had behavioral problems in school, having been left back and, for males, having lived in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community were associated with educational penalties. Parents’ socioeconomic status, NELS test scores and educational aspirations were associated with educational gains.

When employment, marital and residential status in 1992 were added, the educational disadvantage of teenage parenthood lost significance for men. For women, the penalty was reduced to 0.53 years. The penalties and gains associated with the baseline factors remained essentially the same. For both genders, working more than half-time was associated with educational penalties. For men, having lived with one or both parents in 1992 was associated with educational gains; for women, having lived with both parents was associated with a gain. Having been married in 1992 was associated with an educational penalty of 0.37 years for women.

In a model accounting for teenage parents’ caregiver status, women who were teenage mothers and were the primary caregiver for their child attained 0.64 fewer years of education than respondents who were not parents. Compared with their peers who were not parents during adolescence, teenage fathers who were not the primary caregiver attained 0.62 fewer years of education. Interestingly, in this model, there were no educational penalties for parenthood for teenage fathers who were the primary caregiver or for teenage mothers who were not compared with those who had not become parents during adolescence.

To examine the relative importance of parenthood status and material resources, the analyst estimated educational attainment for eight hypothetical students (two teenage fathers, two teenage mothers, two childless males, two childless females), assuming that one person in each pair was resource-rich (defined as unmarried, living with two parents and working less than half-time) and the other was resource-poor (married, living with neither parent and working at least half-time). All of the hypothetical teenage parents, regardless of level of resources, attained 0.2–0.5 fewer years of education than their childless counterparts. However, and most strikingly, resources proved to be more important to educational attainment than teenage parenting. Regardless of parenthood status, the resource-rich teenagers attained 1.1–1.7 more years of education than those who were resource-poor.

The researcher concludes that the educational disadvantage seen among teenage parents begins before they become parents. Teenage parents are further disadvantaged because children create a need for resources beyond what is usually available to teenagers. The researcher suggests that the findings should "offer a message of hope" to policymakers. Teenage parents, she concludes, do not have to suffer long-term educational consequences. Rather, "provided with enough material resources, contemporary teenage parents may be able to go quite far in school, despite their initial socioeconomic and educational disadvantage." —L. Melhado


1. Mollborn S, Making the best of a bad situation: material resources and teenage parenthood, Journal of Marriage and Family, 2007, 69(1):92–104.