5 Tips for Supporting Young Mothers' Road to College

A young woman wearing a graduation cap and gown and holding a baby.

When a teen becomes pregnant, college may be the last thing on her mind. Less than two percent of girls who have a baby before age 18 (PDF, 680KB) finish college by age 30, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The financial, emotional and day-to-day stresses of young motherhood along with lack of opportunity, poverty, and low expectations for teen moms may contribute to their graduation gap.

With these norms in mind, The Care Center, a comprehensive college preparation program for teen moms in Holyoke, MA, sets high expectations for students and offers deep support. Young women attend GED, arts, writing, sports and college-level classes. Meals, transportation and child care are covered. And staff members repeatedly remind students that college is the path to a fulfilling and self-sufficient life. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, young moms’ hear the questions “What’s your passion? What are you supposed to be doing on the planet Earth?” says Anne Teschner, the center’s executive director.

The Care Center’s academic rigor and regular pep talks lead 75 percent of graduates to enroll in college. Helping to get them there—and keep them there—is Elora Pindell, the Care Center’s “transition counselor.”

Like a high-school academic counselor, she monitors students’ progress toward their academic goals and walks them through the college application process. Then she goes further by teaching a course called Transitions to College to orient them, keeping close tabs on them through their first year of college, and championing them through whatever higher-ed obstacles they encounter.

Here are Pindell and Teschner’s five tips for other organizations that want to hire a transition counselor to support college-bound young moms:

1. Be realistic about workload. Pindell and Teschner say their students rely heavily on Pindell –for academic counseling, hugs and a shoulder to cry on, and help with accessing resources such as low-cost textbooks. Ideally, The Care Center would hire a second counselor, but because they lack the cash to do that, Pindell only works with students through their first year of college, as a way of reducing her caseload.

2. Choose a candidate with a unique skill set. A bachelor’s degree is essential to provide guidance from first-hand experience, such as how to understand a syllabus, apply for student loans and ask for extensions for assignments. The counselor must believe all students can succeed, Teschner says, and needs to be an enthusiastic problem solver. A good counselor is also empathetic, nurturing and approachable with a knack for calming young people down, Pindell says.

3. Provide youth with social support they may not get at home. Pindell and Teschner say that teen moms—many of whom are first-generation GED and college students—often don’t get support from family members and intimate partners for their pursuit of a college degree. Young mothers may be told that college is not worth the struggle and cost, that they are leaving their family and children behind, or that they are needed as income earners and caregivers at home.

To counter potential negativity—both external and internal--young moms need to hear constant, reinforcing messages from the counselor, Pindell and Teschner say. Pindell often repeats mantras such as “You can do it,” “College is supposed to be hard,” “You’re doing fine,” “You have to do it,” and “Don’t quit.”

4. Anticipate the unique barriers teen moms may face. Teschner says stable housing and reliable child care are paramount, and their lack can derail a student’s academic progress. The transition counselor and other staff members should determine and meet youths’ priority needs so students can focus on their studies.

5. Identify "point people" within the college community who can serve as additional resources. Create partnerships with student support staff members at your local college–the academic counseling or advising office is a good place to start. These contacts broaden youths’ network of support and provide another reliable advisor if the transition counselor is not immediately available.

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