The Supreme Court's dismantling of abortion rights Friday will likely expand the nation’s ranks of pregnant students — and colleges aren’t ready.
Rolling back Roe v. Wade — allowing for broad restrictions on abortion access in at least 20 states — will likely lead to an increase in the number of college-aged students stuck with two choices: raise children on college campuses or abandon their hopes of earning degrees.
The former will prove difficult as institutions have struggled for decades to provide everything from private rooms and housing to flexible schedules for pregnant students. Now schools in states where abortion rights aren’t codified into local laws will find themselves straining even more.
“Colleges should be prepared for a larger population of students who are pregnant and parenting,” said Bayliss Fiddiman, director of educational equity at the National Women’s Law Center. “But we don't even have a system in place to support the ones that we currently have.”
Student-parents are 10 times less likely to graduate college on time than their peers without children. And without a degree, women — who make up nearly 60 percent of all U.S. college students — could face long-running financial losses: single mothers with associate degrees make an average of $152,927 more over their lifetimes than their peers with only a high school diploma, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a children’s advocacy nonprofit.
Colleges will have to provide lactation rooms to accommodate students. Child care could be in higher demand, and, according to Generation Hope, an advocacy group for those student-parents, just 8 percent of universities offer family housing. But some schools have yet to follow through on more basic services for pregnant students.
“We've even seen cases where girls requested an accommodation like a larger desk to sit at in class and they're not given that,” Fiddiman said. “It's a form of push-out.”
There are also difficult questions about how schools might rethink their approach to basic classroom attendance rules, which is often a key metric for instructors.
If colleges want to retain their student-parents, it’s unclear how best to keep these students enrolled and get their classwork done amid excused absences for illnesses and doctors appointments for their kids. This will be especially crucial, advocates say, now that Biden’s Education Department is interpreting Title IX, the federal education law that prohibits sex-based discrimination, to prevent discrimination against pregnant students. But it may be difficult to enforce without data on how many pregnant students are enrolled in schools as well as a lack of guidance.
Most colleges and universities don't know how many of their students are pregnant or parenting, said Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of Generation Hope.
“This is a population that is highly invisible and is often left out of conversations around marginalized populations and what equity needs to look like when it comes to higher education,” Lewis said, adding that the Education Department could play a role in asking colleges to collect the data.
Beyond not knowing how many students there are, parenting students are struggling to complete school due to strict attendance and housing policies.
“If you're a four-year school and you have a requirement that all freshmen live on campus their first year, that is really exclusionary when it comes to a student who has a child,” Lewis said. “That's a great example of a policy that is subtly telling student-parents that they don't belong.”
Although the Biden administration unveiled its proposed Title IX rule this month, it won’t be fully enforceable until it is finalized. The regulation, designed to punish sex-based discrimination in schools, is critically important in protecting pregnant and parenting students “at a time when reproductive rights are under attack,” according to the National Women’s Law Center.
The Education Department’s proposal clarifies that schools must protect parenting and pregnant students and employees from discrimination. This means schools must have “reasonable modifications for students, reasonable break time for employees for lactation and lactation space for both students and employees.”
If a student is pregnant, the school must offer them information on how to contact the Title IX coordinator, and the coordinator would have to ensure the student receives modifications to help them go to school.
The Education Department has already started investigating and resolving complaints of discrimination against these students.
Earlier this month, the agency’s Office for Civil Rights resolved a Salt Lake Community College student’s complaint of pregnancy discrimination against the Utah school. OCR found the college violated Title IX after an investigation concluded the school “encouraged a pregnant student to drop a course because she was pregnant.”
The community college did not make necessary accommodations for the student that advocates have been pressing for: academic adjustments, referring the student to necessary services, excusing pregnancy-related absences and allowing work to be submitted later.
Education Department officials interpreting Title IX to protect pregnant students from discrimination will nudge colleges to provide further supports for these students, or they could risk their access to federal funds. But colleges facing pandemic-spurred enrollment tumbles should also be wary of not providing support, Lewis said.
“There's a very real possibility that not being a campus that is family-friendly, and that has invested in student-parents could hurt your enrollment numbers and could communicate to a student in that situation that this is not a place for them,” said Lewis, of Generation Hope.