Teenage girls earn extra cash for college -- as long as they don't get pregnant

When Mia Hubbard of Greensboro, N.C., enters Wake Forest University next fall, she'll receive a little financial boost from the nonprofit support group she joined in seventh grade.

For six years, Hubbard has belonged to an adolescent girls' group called College Bound Sisters, which focuses on fellowship, goal-setting, age-appropriate sexual education and getting into college. Hubbard will complete the program by graduating high school and enrolling in college. At that point, she'll receive a stipend of more than $2,000: a dollar for each day she's been a participant in the group.
There's just one minor caveat. The deal's off if she gets pregnant while in the progam.

Paying teenage girls not to have a baby raises a few eyebrows. But the founders of College Bound Sisters say it makes sense. Drs. Hazel Brown and Rebecca Saunders of the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro developed this innovative approach to a common problem nearly 20 years ago while working as maternity nurses.

"Over the years, we saw an increasing number of teens having babies," Brown says. "It became our mission to help do something about that."

It's No Big Deal

Brown and Saunders worked with the Guilford County (N.C.) Health Department to develop a pregnancy-prevention program for girls who already had one child. In 1997, they turned their focus to primary pregnancy prevention, founding College Bound Sisters for girls 12 to 16 -- considered high-risk because their sisters were teenage mothers.

"When I was doing maternity nursing," Brown says, "the girls would always say, 'It hasn't been such a big deal in my family, because my sister already had a baby.'"

The program is controversial on several levels. Abstinence is not required of participants; the program offers information on both birth control and safe sex, which doesn't sit well with those who support abstinence-only education. Other critics believe the government should not pay teens to do what's in their own self-interest.

Indeed, many of the girls who join the program initially are motivated by the money. But they stay, Brown says, because of the support they receive and the opportunity to get a college education. "You can't work toward a negative," she says, "so saying 'Don't get pregnant' isn't good enough. This program gives them something to work toward."

Getting Pregnant, Early and Often

"College Bound Sisters helped me stay focused on school and to understand the consequences of getting pregnant," says Hubbard, who's 17. "Becoming a teen parent would slow me down or stop me from going to college. That's what happened to my sister."

Wendy Amundson, vice president for education at Planned Parenthood Health Systems, says offering young girls a financial incentive to avoid pregnancy has proved an effective strategy. Planned Parenthood runs two adolescent-parenting programs in North Carolina that focus on preventing a second pregnancy.

"In North Carolina, if the mom becomes pregnant at 16, she has a 27 percent chance of getting pregnant again before 19," Amundson says. "We give the girls incentives such as gift cards, CDs, or things for their children not to get pregnant, or to reward them for reaching certain goals, and it works. Over the 15 years of the program, we have only had six repeat pregnancies out of an estimated 540 teens."

Big Savings for Taxpayers

College Bound Sisters boasts a similar success rate. Only six girls of the 125 enrolled for six months or longer have become pregnant. About 40 have already finished high school, and 10 have graduated from college.

Programs like College Bound Sisters also makes sense on a macro scale. Teen pregnancies cost taxpayers $9.1 billion annually, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. North Carolina ranks eighth in the nation for teen pregnancies. The $75,000 annual cost for the programs run by Planned Parenthood and College Bound sisters pales next to the $500,000 a teen pregnancy can cost taxpayers for health care and welfare.

"When you can prevent a pregnancy, you've more than paid for a program like this," says Brown.
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