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Since the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade nearly one year ago, access to abortion on college campuses has taken on heightened importance. 

In the aftermath, some states are mandating that public colleges provide students with access to medication that ends pregnancy. In August, New York will join California and Massachusetts in requiring certain public colleges to provide abortion medication to students. 

“Young people are always on the front lines of attacks on bodily autonomy,” said Niharika Rao, a senior at Barnard College who has been campaigning for the law through advocacy groups. 

These laws highlight some of the new responsibilities colleges are undertaking to broaden abortion access following the landmark court ruling. And some research suggests that these kinds of policies may influence where students ultimately decide to enroll. 

Rao said the Supreme Court’s decision last year has affected New York, even though abortion remains legal in the state. Increased demand from residents of states where abortion is now inaccessible, as well as protesters at abortion clinics, have put up more hurdles for students. 

“All of those barriers, including longer wait times and increased pressure on our abortion funds, really meant that we were looking to increase the access points for abortion itself across the state,” said Rao, who is an organizer with the nonprofit Advocates for Youth.

The New York law may not be the only thing encouraging colleges to step into the new role. Even though Barnard is a private college, it announced in October it would be providing abortion pills after organized activism from students, including Rao. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of California, Berkeley, among other public colleges, chose to provide the pills before required by law. 

“The campus administration heard from students that they want access to medication abortion,” a spokesperson for UMass Amherst said via email. “The goal has been to provide improved access to this medication and related health services provided by the university’s medical staff, and the result has been an increase in their use by students.”

Other colleges are supporting student reproductive health access in different ways. Wesleyan University, for example, announced it would contribute to covering the remaining costs for students’ abortions after insurance, as well as provide free emergency contraception. 

At a time when reproductive freedom is being threatened around the country, Wesleyan is dedicated to providing students with support for free emergency contraception or for the decision to terminate a pregnancy,” a spokesperson for the university said via email.

Making the change

Providing medication for abortion on campus can require more than just bringing in new inventory. After a 2019 law required California’s public universities to offer the pills by the beginning of this year, California State University campuses partnered with nonprofit organizations to run clinical training sessions for their health centers, according to a system spokesperson. 

Each campus was allocated $200,000, which could be used for training expenses and equipment, facility and security upgrades. Officials also met with the system’s unions to establish an opt-out process for healthcare workers who object to providing abortion services.

Still, abortion is a charged issue for some institutions. 

State laws can prevent some colleges from offering the medication. Other institutions may see it as too thorny of an issue. Several anonymous administrators told The New York Times in July that they are resisting calls to take on the responsibility of providing abortion pills. They cited a desire not to be involved in a medical decision that can take a toll on students’ emotions and bodies.

New York’s recent law — which was applauded by the chancellors of the state’s two public systems — says that colleges may offer students information about abortion medication and referrals to outside providers instead of providing the pill directly. 

Officials at Queens College, part of the City University of New York system, said that is what the institution plans to do. 

“This approach helps to prepare and equip students that do seek care from off-campus agencies,” Jennifer Jarvis, vice president for students affairs and enrollment management, said in an emailed statement. “Prescriptions and medication will not be distributed on campus.”

Abortion access and college choice

Research suggests that policies broadening students’ reproductive access could influence where they choose to go. 

One-quarter of students said they would rule out institutions based on the political leanings or policies in the states where they are located, according to a survey from Art & Science Group, a higher education consulting firm. For liberal students, the second most-cited reason for ruling out colleges was conservative state policies on reproductive health and abortion. 

An April study from the Lumina Foundation and Gallup found 72% of students said reproductive health laws in the state where they attend are at least somewhat important to their decision to stay enrolled. 

Among adults who were not enrolled and had no degree, 60% said those laws were at least somewhat important in their decision to enroll at a specific college. Of that group, surveyed adults overwhelmingly preferred more access and less restriction on reproductive health services. 

Polled students indicated they would be more likely to attend schools in states with greater abortion access, said Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning at Lumina. 

“That was true across gender, across age, and most importantly, across party lines,” Brown said. “Today’s students have multiple responsibilities, and they want to make sure they have access to the health services that they need.”

Brown said lawmakers should consider the impact of their reproductive health policies on enrollment. 

“We’ve seen a decline in enrollment over the past ten years and a huge decline over the pandemic that has now just stabilized,” she said. “If states are serious about getting more students to enroll, which they need to fulfill their labor market needs and bring in more business to their states, then this is something that is really important to look at.”

But David Strauss, principal at Art & Science Group, said that students’ choices will likely be more complicated than one single policy. 

“To some extent, it’s going to be an amalgam of political issues to which students are reacting,” he said via email. “It’s also not clear to us whether passing any particular legislation alone around one of the issues or concerns would necessarily affect the number of people reporting ruling out schools.”