Summer is a time when high school students and their families plan for college. Rising seniors make decisions on where they’ll apply. Juniors and seniors take campus tours. I’ve written in previous articles about boycotting college rankings and evaluating colleges on attributes including full-time faculty members teaching in the first-year program, writing across the curriculum, mentoring, and providing opportunities to build social capital.
Now, the most important feature of the college search should be the campus’s commitment to health and safety. Liz Willen writes in a recent Hechinger Report newsletter, “At a recent gathering that included many college deans and presidents, my … colleague Olivia Sanchez and I individually asked them to describe the greatest crisis facing higher education today. Overwhelmingly, the answer came back in two words: mental health.”
From first-year orientation to graduation, students’ health and safety must be top priority.
The pandemic, the state of our country and the age of students (most mental health conditions develop by the age of 24) are contributing, but what’s even more important is finding students the help they need to either stay in school or get back on track after they’ve taken time off.
Research on college selection must include questions about adequate staffing in student health centers. Prospective students and their families also need to look beyond the health center itself, to make sure the school they’re considering provides mentoring and counseling across the curriculum and co-curriculum. From first-year orientation to graduation, students’ health and safety must be top priority.
Choosing a college Post-Roe
I’m going to be blunt on this point. I do not advise attending any college or university in a state that bans abortion. It’s not a question of a political boycott. It’s simply that the abortion ban will make it much more difficult for university health centers to provide any kind of reproductive counseling, except for abstinence.
State trigger laws that have already gone into effect — or even have started and stopped — have generated ample fear of personal lawsuits against counselors who might provide information on safe and reliable abortion pills. Furthermore, many misunderstand that the contraceptive “day-after” pill prevents fertilization rather than initiating an abortion. For their personal safety, counselors might avoid recommending this form of birth control.
The campus has long been a safe haven for counseling. The state should not put restrictions on those conversations.
While I fully endorse the idea that students should affirm their self-worth and the value of intimate relationships by making careful choices about sexual behavior, they need advice and support along the way. Many students are more likely to seek help from medical and psychological professionals outside their family unit. The campus has long been a safe haven for counseling. The state should not put restrictions on those conversations. But given the Supreme Court decision on Roe, 26 states will soon be doing so. It’s not a healthy choice to send a student to college in those states.
Another consequence of state barriers to reproductive freedom is that many faculty members will depart, and new faculty prospects may select other options.
The new Title IX regulations recently submitted by the Department of Education provide some help. According to the journal Inside Higher Ed,
The new regulations clarify the types of accommodations that students can access due to pregnancy, miscarriage or abortion and provide a clear definition of what falls under “pregnancy-related symptoms” that students can use to request a medically excused absence from class. Advocates say that these clarifications are important because pregnant students and those with children are often discouraged from and discriminated against when trying to continue their education.
We are fortunate in Philadelphia that neighboring New Jersey protects reproductive rights and is taking steps to defend them further. For now, Pennsylvania does not put roadblocks in the way of frank discussions at college or university health centers. But the November election could change that.
How to protect college students’ health and safety
- Students should select campuses that give priority to health and safety.
- Voters should support funding for public colleges and universities to increase staffing in counseling.
- Philanthropists should earmark contributions to colleges to fund mental health.
- Students should avoid matriculation at universities and colleges in states that restrict reproductive rights.
- Colleges and universities should make further investments in health counseling.
- In November, voters should ask themselves whether they want laws that protect reproductive health or the opposite.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
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