by Tessa Holtzman, Anna Bernstein, and Lindsey Reichlin Cruse
On July 8-9, 2019 in Washington, DC, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) hosted a convening on expanding reproductive health access for community college students. The convening brought together reproductive health and higher education experts, program leaders, community college representatives, and students to share their strategies and consider new opportunities to improve reproductive health access for the community college population. With over 40 people in attendance, the convening offered a powerful opportunity to discuss the need for greater attention to students’ reproductive health, the role that improved access to family planning information and care could play in students’ outcomes, and how colleges and communities around the country are working to close existing access gaps. This post describes highlights of the convening and foundational principles that emerged from the discussion that can guide future efforts to expand access to reproductive health for community college students.
The Case for Reproductive Health Access for Community College Students
In the absence of supportive services pregnancy and parenthood can diminish a college student’s ability to attend college and succeed once enrolled. Providing students with the resources, including access to affordable contraceptive options and information they need to decide if and when they want to start a family, is key to supporting their postsecondary success. Yet, just half of community colleges have health centers, and, according to IWPR’s research (here and here), many do not provide supports to help students meet their reproductive and sexual health needs.
Recent efforts to improve community college outcomes have increasingly focused on taking a holistic approach to student success. Holistic or wraparound supports can take many forms, from individualized coaching that refers students to on- or off-campus services, such as campus food pantries, emergency aid programs, or child care. As holistic approaches to improving student outcomes are increasingly seen as best practice, ensuring that access to reproductive health services is included in the suite of supports provided to students, either directly or indirectly, is essential.
As holistic approaches to improving student outcomes are increasingly seen as best practice, ensuring that access to reproductive health services is included in the suite of supports provided to students, either directly or indirectly, is essential.
One study estimates that unplanned pregnancy accounts for 10 percent of dropouts among female community college students and 7 percent of dropouts among community college students overall.
College-aged young adults are likely to be sexually active and many do not use birth control or other forms of contraception regularly, or do not have access to the form of contraception they prefer. Community college students want to prevent pregnancy, but often hold misconceptions about birth control and are at higher risk for unintended pregnancy than college students overall. Unmet need for contraception is high among women in community college, with cost and insurance often getting in the way of their ability to use their preferred contraceptive methods. The legacy of reproductive coercion can also effect the ability of community college students of color to access their preferred method of contraceptive care.
When students have access to family planning support, however, success is more likely. For example, legal access to contraception and abortion has been historically shown to improve a range of economic outcomes for women, including educational attainment. A 2007 study estimated that by 2000, more than 250,000 women over the age 30 were able to obtain bachelor’s degrees as a result of access to contraception. Ensuring students can access a range of family planning services, including contraception and abortion, and that campuses are family friendly for students who have children, is key to supporting community college students’ health needs and educational aspirations.
Increasing Access to Reproductive Care on Community College Campuses
To move the needle for community college students’ access to reproductive health supports, campuses need a better understanding of the link between reproductive health and student outcomes, along with more information and examples of approaches that help students with their reproductive needs. The convening included programs that are working to increase reproductive health access for college students, including:
- BAE-B-SAFE, a partnership between Healthy Futures of Texas and Alamo Community Colleges in San Antonio, Texas,
- The Women’s Fund of Omaha’s Adolescent Health Project, which serves students at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska, and
- G.I.R.L. (Gathering Information Related to Ladies), a student advocacy group led by African American women from Jackson State University.
A number of community colleges were also represented at the event, including Austin Community College, Miami Dade College, and Pasadena City College, in addition to national groups, such as Power to Decide, National Women’s Law Center, and Young Invincibles.
Several principles emerged from discussions among convening participants and IWPR’s research to guide efforts to integrate reproductive health into colleges’ holistic approaches to student success:
- Building college & community partnerships. Knowing that many community colleges do not have the capacity to provide direct reproductive health services to students, colleges should build partnerships with community reproductive health providers to facilitate students’ access to care that can meet their reproductive health needs. Referrals to outside services and information on pregnancy and family planning would play an important role in allowing students to plan when, and whether, they want to become pregnant while in college.
- Providing access to inclusive, safe, and culturally-competent care. As colleges think about how to connect students with reproductive care, they should ensure that the care offered is centered on the needs and preferences of students, and that it is confidential, consistent, accessible, and inclusive of all students, including current parents, students who want to become parents, students who do not want to become parents, and LGBTQ+ students. Services must also be culturally conscious, taking into account disparities in access to reproductive health supports, existing biases in the provision of sexual and reproductive health care, and the impact that the legacy of reproductive coercion may have on the perceptions and experiences of students of color.
- Making the case for new investments. Messaging about the importance of increasing students’ access to reproductive health services must resonate with students, faculty, staff, and college leadership. For example, explaining the link between access to reproductive health services and improved student outcomes will help make the case to college administrators that investing in greater support for students’ reproductive health needs is worthwhile. More research is needed on students’ needs and the availability of services on community college campuses to strengthen this case and to clarify how colleges can make a measurable difference.
- Peer-to-peer learning & information sharing. Connecting community college leaders with others who are already working to increase student access to reproductive health care on college campuses can demonstrate the potential for success. Greater communication of current practices in the field can also exemplify the benefits of this work and provide a roadmap for institutions interested in learning more.
- Building awareness & support. Greater attention to the importance of students’ reproductive lives for college success, and advocacy to increase access to services, is essential to moving the needle forward. Cultivating high-level champions would help raise awareness and build momentum toward integrating reproductive health into holistic support models. The philanthropic community should dedicate their convening power and funding to share best practices and build capacity in the field. Partnerships between student groups on four-year and community college campuses, reproductive health organizing networks, community and reproductive justice activists, and other stakeholders would also help broaden the call for action.
As colleges and higher education experts increasingly understand the role of students’ non-academic lives in their success in higher education, students’ reproductive desires and access to care must be brought into the conversation. By doing more to address the reproductive health needs of community college students, colleges can achieve better and more equitable educational outcomes and contribute to the economic success of students and families.
By doing more to address the reproductive health needs of community college students, colleges can achieve better and more equitable educational outcomes and contribute to the economic success of students and families.
July’s convening was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, as a part of a project designed to raise awareness of the need for reproductive health access as an integral component of community college student success, and strategies that can promote progress. Through this initiative, IWPR is conducting research to: understand efforts to connect community college students with reproductive health care and resources around the country; =identify gaps in access and opportunities to meet existing need; and share promising strategies for expanding community college students’ access to reproductive health information and care. This work is intended to inform and inspire higher education leaders, philanthropists, policymakers, and others to improve access to reproductive health services in community college settings and encourage integration of reproductive health and economic and community development initiatives more broadly. Learn more about this work on IWPR.org.