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Lower College Tuition Fees Could Reduce Teen Sex

September 5, 2011, 12:00 AM

Next time you buy a coffee make sure you are polite to the person who serves you – after all, her tax dollars helped fund your college education. Public funding of education doesn’t just benefit the recipient though; lower college tuition fees can reduce teen risky sexual behavior as high school students have more to lose when things go wrong.

A new paper uses nationally representative US data to determine if teens in states with lower tuition and fees for public community colleges make better choices in response to increased optimism about educational opportunities. The author finds that a $1,000 reduction in tuition and fees decreases the average number of sexual partners of 17-year-old high school students within the last year by 26%. He also finds that students smoke less (by 14%) and use marijuana less (by 23%) when college is more affordable.

The argument that supports these results is that as rational forward-looking individuals, teenagers understand that risky sexual behavior today has the potential to impose costs in the future. If a student doesn’t anticipate furthering their education after high school, then the expected cost of pregnancy (in terms of forgone future income) is lower than if the student planned to acquire more education and, as a result, expected a higher future income.

Lowering tuition fees won’t change the risk of pregnancy but for students who are on the margin of either continuing in school or entering the workforce (which is probably the case of those considering community college) then the change in tuition should increase the number of students who anticipate continuing in school. If planning to stay in school reduces risky sexual behavior, and lower tuition increases the number of students who plan to stay in school, then it makes sense that there is a direct relationship between tuition and teen sex.

This paper finds that for students in their final year of high school an increase in tuition by $1,000 reduces a student’s expectations of continuing in school by 5.7%, so at least we know that students do take the cost of education into consideration when setting their expectations.

The potential pitfall of this argument though just how forward thinking (or even rational) are otherwise horny teenagers. I am not saying students don’t think about the future, I just find the result that risky behavior falls by 26% hard to believe. The problem is that while this number includes changes in the behavior of all students, only a small fraction of those students plan to go to community college; many plan to go to university and many others plan to not continue in school at all.

Still, while only a fraction of students actually go onto college there are probably many more who think they will, and in fact this study supports that view: 83% of high school seniors believe they will be enrolled in school in one year’s time while only 56% actually are enrolled in some form of schooling including university and community college. So while only a few are ultimately affected by lower tuition fees, perhaps many more are influenced in anticipation.

One of my daughter’s Facebook friends from high school is just about to have her second baby at the tender age of 18. Whenever I hear these stories I always think: there is a girl who never thought she would go on in school. Of course, I may be wrong. Many girls who thought they would be in post-secondary education are changing diapers instead, and others are doing both – going to school and taking care of small children. But I can’t help think that had this girl thought that she could afford a somewhat brighter future her she might have made difference choices.

Cowan, Benjamin (2011). “Forward-thinking teens: The effects of college costs on adolescent risky behaviour.” Economics of Education Review vol. 30: pp 813– 825.


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