Abortion and College Admissions: Roe v. Wade Decision Makes Students Reconsider School Choices
For 13-year-old Alena, receiving acceptance to the University of Alabama (UAB) Heersink School of Medicine through an early assurance program was a dream come true. Alena, whose passion “is to create a space for girls of color in STEM” and some might call a prodigy, is already dual-enrolled in bachelor’s programs (and on full scholarships) at Oakwood University in Alabama and Arizona State University. UAB is on her list of top medical schools.
It might be too bad for UAB. “Right now, if the leaked decision stands, I would not consider going to school in a state where abortion is against the law,” Alena, tells Teen Vogue. “This matters to me.” (Alena, a minor, preferred to only use her legal first name).
She’s not alone. The Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion legislation that has been law for almost 50 years, will transform so many aspects of daily life in the United States. One will likely be college enrollments. Young people who can get pregnant may reconsider going to school in places where abortion is banned or severely restricted. The choice will likely be particularly agonizing for low-income students, who are less able to afford to travel to seek care in states that still provide the procedure.
Shortly after the decision was leaked several people, including former U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and activist Amy Siskind, wondered how the decision would affect college students. McCaskill, a former prosecutor and University of Missouri alumnus, says that the state of Missouri has gone to an “extreme place,” pushing legislation to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest and even criminalize physicians.
“If a state does not tell a young woman that they are entitled to terminate a pregnancy after a rape, I’m not sure I’d be spending my money on education in that state,” McCaskill tells Teen Vogue. “It will be interesting to track enrollments at colleges in these states.” McCaskill notes that Washington University in St. Louis “attracts some of the brightest minds in the country.… I wonder how many of those graduates would reconsider staying in Missouri because of what has been created by officeholders with extreme views,” she says.
Washington University in St. Louis declined to comment. A spokesperson at the University of Missouri told Teen Vogue via email that they have “not had any current, incoming, or prospective students indicate that they had concerns about coming to the university.”
Federal officials have pointed to the economic ripple effects of forcing people to go through with pregnancies they do not want. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee in May, banning abortion “would have very damaging effects on the U.S. economy and would set women back decades.”
According to Pew Research Center, as of mid-May 2022, 61% of U.S. adults polled say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
McCaskill suggests that young people research the reproductive rights laws in states where they’re applying to colleges. Fortunately, there’s an abundance of information available online. The 19th, an independent news site, has published a thorough guide to the laws in each state, while The Cut recently published a comprehensive package, which included information on how to get an abortion.
Her Campus spoke to a University of Tennessee health professional who is urging school health centers to get more involved. “If the colleges in [some of] these states are as progressive as they claim to be, they should offer help to women who need it,” says Amelia McNeil, 20, a rising junior at Elmhurst University in Illinois.
In 2019, when McNeil was a high schooler in Maine, she created “My College, My Choice” — a community that provides a form letter to send to schools you are no longer considering because of policies enacted by their state’s government. “It’s a protest, a movement, to commit to choosing a college that will protect your rights,” McNeil tells Teen Vogue. “When it started, I was 17 and could not vote and I wanted to do something. I took a break from the account after the last election because we thought reproductive freedom would be protected, but now there’s more interest.”
Still, getting to “choose” where you go to college is a privileged conversation. State schools cost less and many students won’t have the opportunity to leave their home states for school and they can’t travel to another state for care. (And if some Missouri lawmakers get their way, that sort of travel would be illegal, too).
In places like Texas, the whisper networks are already active. In 2021, Bustle reported from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, a self-described “sanctuary city for the unborn,” where abortion is banned. They heard from students passing around sticks of gum containing information about where to get medical abortion pills.
“It is so important to do research now when looking at schools,” says Alena, who is from the Fort Worth, Texas, area. “What laws are in place to protect women? If I am raped, am I protected? What does a post-Roe world look like in the state of Alabama? Or if I were to go to school at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona? All of these things you have to take into consideration now.”
Students like Alena, who are going into medicine and other health care fields, will have even more to consider. McCaskill says doctors will be some of the primary targets for these extreme abortion laws, especially those who work in women’s health, fertility, and IVF. “What’s going to happen,” McCaskill says, “is [there will be] states where it is not clear what a doctor can do without stepping over the line of criminal liability insurance.”
Aarya Ghonasgi, 21, a rising senior at the University of Oklahoma, who is currently working on her applications for medical school, has lived in the state since she was a toddler and for financial reasons stayed in Oklahoma for college. “Staying in-state was very important to me. I am on scholarship and I am a National Merit Scholar,” Ghonasgi tells Teen Vogue. “I wanted to keep my costs low for undergrad and be close to my family.”
Ghonasgi is from Bartlesville, which, she says, is “very red,” even for Oklahoma. Still, Ghonasgi considers herself politically independent, even though she is “against the moves that legislators in Oklahoma have [made] towards abortion.” “I’m studying to become a doctor. [These laws] affect my future career,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m considering moving out of state to practice. Oklahoma laws won’t allow health care workers to properly do their jobs. Why would anyone want to practice here if they are threatened with being thrown in jail?”
Oklahoma was recently listed as the worst state in the U.S. for women to live in a WalletHub ranking. According to U.S. News & World Report, the state has the fourth-highest teen birth rate in the nation. “Our sex ed in high school was abstinence-only,” Ghonasgi says. And Oklahoma has the second-highest rate of women in prison in the country. According to Oklahoma’s Health Department, the number of women reporting rape and attempted rape to law enforcement “has been 35–45% higher than the U.S. rate for the past decade.” “All of these things intersect,” Ghonasgi says. “I love the people here in Oklahoma, and my teachers are awesome. I’m torn [about leaving]. There is a lot of need here.”
On the flip side, some students heading for college in the fall to states with GOP-controlled legislatures see it as an opportunity for change. Sophie Zerrouki, 18, will be a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta this fall, where she’ll be playing for the school’s volleyball team. The Illinois native knows that abortion will stay safe in her home state (for now). But in Georgia, she hopes she can make an impact. “For me, going to school in [a] red state is a happy thought because I’m going to register to vote in Georgia,” Zerrouki says. “It is going to be a close election [for governor] and I think it’s going to fall on young people to get out and vote.”
Not everyone can do so yet. Alena, for example, won’t be able to vote until she’s practically graduating from medical school. So she’s using whatever power of choice she has. “I can’t vote yet, but I can choose my [medical] school,” Alena says. “I’m keeping my options open. I’m going to change the world.”
Melissa Malamut is a New York-based journalist whose work has appeared in New York magazine, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, Glamour, and more.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.