New Study Finds Access to Birth Control Increases High School Graduation Rates

Researchers found a 14% decrease in female dropout rates when contraception is made easily available

May 10, 2021

When high school women have increased access to free and low-cost birth control, the percentage of those young women who leave high school before graduating goes down by double-digits, according to a new study published in Science Advances. Sara Yeatman, an associate professor of health and behavior sciences at CU Denver, co-authored the study alongside researchers from CU Boulder.  

The Colorado Family Planning Initiative (CFPI), which began in 2009, abruptly expanded access to contraception through Title X, enabling clinics to provide inexpensive forms of birth control. During CFPI’s peak between 2010-2015, birth and abortion rates in Colorado both declined by half among teens aged 15 to 19 and by 20% among women aged 20 to 24, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

How did greater access to contraception lead to higher graduation rates? 

The new study, which followed more than 170,000 women for up to seven years, provides some of strongest evidence yet that access to contraception yields long-term socioeconomic benefits for women. 

Using anonymized data and detailed surveys from the U.S. Census, researchers examined the educational attainment of 5,050 Colorado women and compared those whose high school career occurred before and after the policy change. To analyze which differences in their lives were due to the family planning initiative versus other factors, the researchers also looked at the same changes in the outcomes of women of similar age in 17 other states. 

Researchers found: 
  • Overall high school graduation rates in Colorado increased from 88% before CFPI to 92% after, and about half of that gain was due to the program.
  • Improvements in graduation rates among Hispanic women, specifically, were even greater, with graduation rates rising from 77% to 87%. 
  • CFPI decreased the percentage of young women in Colorado who left school before graduating by 14%, which means an additional 3,800 Colorado women born between 1994 and 1996 received a high school diploma by age 20 to 22. 

“Previous studies dating back to the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s suggest contraception access is empowering,” said Yeatman. “The confidence that you can control your own fertility can contribute to a young woman investing in her education and in her future.” 

This study comes at a time when public funding for birth control is undergoing heated debate around the country, and some states are considering banning certain forms. These CU researchers hope their findings influence the conversation as lawmakers around the country consider proposals to boost Title X funding, lift restrictions requiring that teens get parental consent for birth control and increase access in other ways.