My turn: We must do a better job with birth control education

By Marta Cabral, Special to CALmatters

Community colleges are a vital pathway to higher education. This is especially true for lower-income students, people of color, and first-generation college students. More than 2 million students attend California’s community colleges, making it the nation’s largest higher education system.

These students have dreams that community colleges are helping to make a reality. But they face unique barriers that could disrupt their aspirations. Our research shows that California community college students lack the necessary information to prevent pregnancies they do not want.

That could stop them from achieving their educational goals.  We urgently need to understand that knowledge gap and invest in education to ensure they have information and power to plan their families.

Every one of the California community college students we interviewed wanted to complete their degree or transfer to a 4-year college in the next year or two. Some had their eyes on graduate school.

Overall, however, only 30 percent of full-time, two-year college enrollees finish their degree within three years. Community college students who have children while enrolled are almost twice as likely to stop their education as those who do not.

Students we talked to had a strong desire to prevent pregnancy while enrolled in community college. Women, in particular, expressed that getting pregnant at that stage of their lives would put them at greater risk for poverty, housing instability, and unachieved career goals.

One 19-year old woman told us: “I would be scared, wouldn’t know what to do, because I don’t want a baby right now. And that’s a setback from my career. I would have to make different plans, and it would just be bad timing.”

Another said, “Oh my God. It would kind of turn my life upside down.”

We found a troubling disconnect, however, between the students’ desire to avoid pregnancy and how they act when it comes to preventing it. The little data we have on community college students’ sexual health and behaviors from prior research suggests they have higher rates of unprotected sex, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections than four-year college students.

Our research has added another layer: these students do not consider themselves to be at risk of pregnancy, nor do they express worry about getting pregnant, despite not wanting to have a child while in school.

Our research suggests that the biggest barrier is lack of contraceptive knowledge, along with fears about birth control. In California, access to contraception is fairly widespread and most young people in the study knew of at least one place to find birth control for free or low cost.

However, few students were aware of methods other than condoms or the pill, such as highly effective IUDs or implants. Students who did know about these methods were reluctant to use them and held negative views and incorrect beliefs about them.

They feared that hormones would mess up their bodies, potentially cause infertility and that devices that go inside the body were unnatural and harmful. Students also overestimated the effectiveness of their contraceptive method, even when they reported using it inconsistently, or believed that having unprotected sex occasionally would not lead to pregnancy.

Community college students deserve the resources to make fully-informed decisions. Our research shows it is crucial that community college students have medically accurate education about contraception.

We need solutions to address racial and economic disparities in knowledge and access to healthcare. We found students are interested and ready to learn. Now, we need to deliver the right kind of education to them.

Investing in community college students’ reproductive healthcare is a low-cost way to invest in California’s future.

Marta Cabral is a research analyst with Beyond the Pill, a program of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the UC San Francisco, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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