Access To and Use of Vocational Education in Teen Parent Programs

Publication August 1992

Both teenage pregnancy and vocational education have long been of concern to policymakers, youth advocates, and the general public. In many respects, however, these concerns have been independent ones. Early vocational education efforts focused largely on males, who were widely viewed as the key to reducing poverty, unemployment, and welfare dependence (Simms &Leitch, 1983). As growing numbers of women have entered the workforce in recent years, it has become apparent that women would benefit as well from training and job assistance. Nevertheless, our society continues to be ambivalent about whether employment by mothers of very young children is appropriate or ultimately beneficial to children, mothers, or society. This ambivalence has been evidenced in programs for teenage mothers, which, until recently, have rarely offered or brokered vocational education or employment-related services to enrollees (Polit, 1986).

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act, Public Law 98-524, passed in 1984, codified concerns about equal access to vocational education for women. These same forces have converged, along with a strong emphasis in the Reagan era on reducing the costs of social welfare programs, to promote welfare reform efforts focused on making recipients work. The Family Support Act of 1988 requires each state to develop a Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program designed to promote this end.

The purpose of this study was to examine the provision of vocational education opportunities to two groups of pregnant and parenting teenagers: (1) those who remain in school and enroll in special school-based or school-sponsored programs for pregnant and parenting students, and (2) those who leave school and enroll at some point in a community-based program that serves pregnant and parenting teens.

Six specific objectives were defined:

  1. To explore vocational education in the context of secondary school programs for pregnant and parenting high school and middle school students.
  2. To examine the degree of access to vocational education available to pregnant and parenting students in secondary schools.
  3. To examine the attitudinal context in which pregnant and parenting students seek and enroll in vocational education.
  4. To compare vocational education opportunities and access in special school programs with such opportunities and access in community-based programs.
  5. To identify programs or efforts that appear to facilitate the acquisition of job-related skills among pregnant and parenting teenagers and that increase their immediate or future employability.
  6. To analyze the effects to date of the Family Support Act on teenage parents and on the programs that serve them.


To address study objectives, we engaged in five different data collection activities. First, we conducted exploratory phone interviews with respondents across the country about pregnant and parenting students and vocational education. Second, we conducted semistructured telephone interviews in 49 randomly selected school districts in seven randomly selected states. Third, we visited 11 school-based or school-sponsored programs for pregnant and parenting students in eight school districts around the country. Three community-sponsored programs were visited as part of our fourth data collection activity. Finally, we conducted follow-up telephone interviews with those whose programs we had visited to discuss the effect of the Family Support Act on program operations and program enrollees.


School District Policies

Most of the districts in our sample of 49 had in some way formally recognized the special needs of pregnant and parenting students. A little over half (56 percent) of the districts that we surveyed permit pregnant and parenting students to receive high school credit for enrollment in adult community education courses–a more liberal policy than one allowing only general equivalency diploma (GED) credit. Just over half of the districts that we surveyed have designated a person at the district level to be formally responsible for pregnant and parenting students. Just under half (43 percent) of the districts in our sample extend homebound instruction in the absence of medical indication to pregnant and parenting students; most districts make this service available if a doctor certifies that the student is unable to attend school.

Two policies were repeatedly identified during site visits as having the potential to negatively affect parenting students: (1) strict school attendance requirements, and (2) strict vocational education eligibility criteria. State-level attendance policies in four of the five states we visited limit the number of excused absences a student may have and still get credit for a course. In only one of these four states were absences related to pregnancy or parenting officially excluded from the count. In only one district of the three we visited that had vocational education eligibility requirements had any effort been made to help teen parents meet them.

Ninety-two school-based programs for teen parents were identified in the 49 districts. In most of the districts that we visited, the formal programs for pregnant and parenting students constituted the district’s sole programmatic response to young mothers. Most of the programs provide enrollees with activities to build self-confidence, parenting education, basic education, remedial education, and advanced academics. Most provide transportation to enrollees (and sometimes to their babies). Most provide on-site child care to enrollees’ children or provide some support for child care off-site.

There was remarkable consensus among programs about their goals. Program goals fell into three categories: (1) educational goals, including preventing dropout, completing high school, and getting a GED; (2) parenting outcomes, including healthy babies, healthy mothers, and parental competence; and (3) employment outcomes, including job skills, job placement, and economic self-sufficiency. Another common goal, enhancing self-esteem, was seen as a desired outcome to be achieved through efforts in each of the other three categories. Schooling and parenting goals were considered critical in all programs; employment goals were considered far less important in most.

Vocational Education in School-Sponsored Teen Parent Programs

Staff support. School staff everywhere strongly support the goal of economic self-sufficiency for teen mothers. But they are often reluctant to actively advocate vocational education as a means of achieving self-sufficiency for fear that teen mothers will come to believe that they are incapable of more academic pursuits. Staff also worry about overloading young mothers.

Opportunities for vocational education. No surveyed districts had any formal barriers to vocational education for pregnant and parenting students, whether they attended regular school or special programs. All teen parent programs in our fieldwork sample provide career guidance. Skills training, through vocational coursework or on-the-job training, is available to enrollees in most. These opportunities are usually available outside the program, in classes that mix parenting students with their nonparenting peers.

Vocational education access. One-quarter of the programs included in our sample provide teen parent program enrollees better access to workforce-related vocational education than was available to nonparenting students. One-third of programs were rated as providing the same “true” access to vocational education opportunities for program enrollees as was provided to nonparenting students. Another third of teen parent programs were rated as providing pregnant and parenting students unequal and inferior access. Level of access could not be assessed in the remaining programs.

In general, use of skills training is fairly low in the 11 programs we visited. Programs with clear self-sufficiency or employment development goals are more likely to enroll teen mothers in vocational education. Barriers to use include child care that may end before job placements do, transportation that fails to take into account the need to return at day’s end to the child care center, conflicts between parenting and vocational education goals, and the tendency among staff to leave decisions about vocational education to teen mothers.

Choosing gender-nontraditional careers. Adult respondents were virtually unanimous in endorsing the concept of gender-nontraditional careers for teen parents as a means of ensuring an adequate income. But respondents everywhere perceived that efforts to encourage them would be limited at best in their impact. Enrollees’ sense of resignation led staff to back off when they might have jumped in to reinforce or facilitate the kind of career choice they wished students to make.

Community-Based Programs

To a substantial degree, the community programs we visited share the same overarching goals for teen parents as the school-based ones. Only those programs that receive outside funds that mandate job skills training and set up job placement as a program outcome devote substantial time to these latter goals.

When vocational education is available on-site, many enrollees participate in it. Vocational education that is available in a different program on the same site (co-site) attracts fewer enrollees. And, when the only opportunities are available off-site, participation is low, even when transportation is available. As in the school-based programs, when employability is a clearly specified program goal, the likelihood that program enrollees will participate in vocational education is enhanced.

Family Support Act Implementation and Effects

The Family Support Act (FSA), the latest in a series of welfare reform efforts, is designed to replace welfare benefits with employment by reducing employment barriers, such as lack of child care, lack of marketable skills, and educational credentials.

In the communities investigated, we found few effects of JOBS on teen parents or on the programs that serve them. Nevertheless, staff in all programs who were familiar with JOBS felt positively about the FSA, citing the benefits JOBS might offer participants, especially the extra services, attention, and guidance. From our data, however, it is unclear whether JOBS will result in any additional services to parenting teens.


The provision of any vocational education in the context of special programs for teen parents requires difficult decisions and tradeoffs among a number of pressing needs. More difficult still is the provision of vocational education that pregnant and parenting teens are able and willing to use.

Program enrollees may not take advantage of vocational education opportunities for a number of reasons, including lack of time, lack of child care flexibility, reluctance to leave the program site, and lack of a clear sense of its importance. Despite strong beliefs among program staff that teen mothers must become economically self-sufficient, they may not push vocational education for reasons of their own, including concerns about interfering in personal decisions and conveying negative messages, beliefs in the primacy of parenting education, and sympathy for the many demands young mothers face. Limited attention in most teen parent programs to these issues and the dilemmas that underlie them reduce the use and utility of vocational education.

Teen parent programs have taken on a great deal, a reflection of the many pressing needs that teen mothers bring to them. Whether these programs can or even should attempt to provide vocational education, and if so, what kinds, remains an open question. Much depends on program goals, school district, community and program resources, and the service model to which the teen parent program ascribes. But regardless of what vocational education is provided by the program, stronger emphasis on the need for vocational education at some point, combined with concrete career planning, would greatly benefit program enrollees and send them an important if more complex message than they currently receive about the joys and responsibilities of parenting.

Zellman, G. L., Feifer, C., & Hirsch, A. E. (1992, August). Access to and use of vocational education in teen parent programs. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Download the report (PDF)