CU Boulder Study Finds That Better Access To Birth Control Boosts High School Graduation Rates

May 8, 2021
Trump Birth Control ScienceTrump Birth Control ScienceRich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
In this Aug. 26, 2016, file photo, a one-month dosage of hormonal birth control pills is displayed in Sacramento, Calif.

A new study shows that when people 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, according to a new CU Boulder-led study published in the journal Science Advances.

It also showed 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, according to author and assistant professor of sociology Amanda Stevenson.

“The magnitude of this effect at the full population level is pretty big,” she said.

She said that until now, claims that access to contraception improves women’s ability to complete their education have been based largely on anecdotal evidence.

“This study is the first to provide rigorous, quantitative, contemporary evidence that it’s true,” Stevenson said, adding that the study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that access to contraception yields long-term socioeconomic benefits for women. 

It comes at a time when some states are considering banning certain forms of contraception, the authors said.

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, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

But to assess whether access to contraception had any long-term socio-economic benefits, researchers at CU Denver and CU Boulder used anonymized data and detailed surveys from the U.S. Census. They compared graduation rates of Colorado women before the adoption of the family planning program to those in the years after.

To understand how much of the increase in graduation rates could be attributed to the family planning initiative versus other factors, the researchers compared Colorado to changes in the outcomes of women of similar age in 17 other states with similar graduation rates.

The percentage of women with a high school diploma increased to 92 percent in Colorado in those years, compared to 88 percent before the Colorado Family Planning Initiative was implemented. Researchers said about half of that gain was due to the program. Improvements in graduation rates among Hispanic women were even greater.

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 graduated after inception of the program.

Why exactly increased access to birth control leads to higher graduation rates is unclear. Researchers say, similar to previous studies dating back to the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s, that controlling one’s own fertility is empowering and can contribute to a young woman investing in her education and her future.

“It is probably 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 Stevenson, who believes the Colorado results also translate to other states.

“Supporting access to contraception does not eliminate disparities in high school graduation, but we find that it can contribute significantly to narrowing them.”

The research team is now assessing whether increased access to birth control influences women’s college attendance and graduation, income and their chances of living in poverty.

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