Orientation at Arkansas Tech University this year included a surprising topic for a Bible Belt state that pushes abstinence-only in high school. Every freshman was shown a newly produced video in which real students talk about the struggle of an unplanned pregnancy, and the challenge of staying in school as a parent.
"I lost a lot of friends," says one young woman in the video who had dreamed of becoming a surgeon. A young man says he "went from not having any responsibility to having a full-time responsibility," while another laments that Friday nights are no longer spent with friends but at home "watching Dora. A lot of Dora."
The message is clear, and it will come up again throughout the year: in a college success course, in group chats in dorms, at a slew of events during Sexual Health Week.
Why in college? Arkansas has the nation's highest rate of teen births, but most of them — here and nationally — are actually to young adults, 18 and 19 years old. Last year, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law directing the state's public colleges and universities to tackle unplanned pregnancy. Schools have each been crafting their own plans for how to do that, and they launched the effort during orientation this month.
After watching the video at one session at Arkansas Tech in Russellville, nearly every student said it hit home.
"I think there was anywhere between five to 10 girls in my grade that got pregnant," says freshman Sydney Blackwell. "I remember in eighth grade there was a girl that never made it to ninth grade because she got pregnant."
Only 4 of 20 students in this group say they had sex ed in high school. Brooklynn Evans says she didn't get much guidance at home, either, not even the basic birds and bees. "My parents were too uncomfortable to talk about it," she says.
Same with Carlos Morales. He thinks it's great that his college is bringing this up, but "it would have been better to have a class earlier, during our middle school."
'The problem in the room that nobody wants to discuss'
Arkansas' law is modeled on one that took effect last school year in Mississippi. Both had bipartisan support and were amazingly uncontroversial.
"It was surprisingly easy; it shocked me," says Rep. Deborah Ferguson, the Democratic co-sponsor of the Arkansas law. Still, she says it would not be politically possible to mandate sex ed in earlier grades. The legislation's Republican co-sponsor believes that's best left to local districts.
But that co-sponsor, Rep. Robin Lundstrum, had an early job in family planning. She says she heard from high school students over and over that they had nowhere to turn for information on how to not get pregnant. "It's the problem in the room that nobody wants to discuss," she says.
At Arkansas Tech, student wellness dean Kristy Davis says it makes sense to target those in college, many of whom are away from home for the first time. She says faculty can help "make sure that they're prepared and they have the information to make good decisions for themselves."
The mandate is so far unfunded. Angela Lasiter, a program specialist with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, is creating a nonprofit and hopes to attract money to keep the effort going. At community colleges, which usually lack a health center, she's also making sure nearby clinics are stocked with the most effective contraceptives. A substantial share of students at some two-year colleges are already parents, and Lasiter says the state's push can help prevent them from having a second child.
Some universities are even weaving the topic into their curriculum. Lasiter says it's easy to drop into classes like statistics, English, "or, say, Speech 101. 'We would like for you to write a 10-minute speech on how to prevent unplanned pregnancies.' Boom."
The goal, she says, is to get students talking. And if they also talk with their little sisters and brothers, all the better.
There's also a broader benefit for the state, Lasiter says. When young parents drop out of college, or never get there in the first place, it costs Arkansas $129 million a year in "lower income, more people on welfare, a less higher quality of living." That economic hit is compounded because the children of teen mothers are more likely to have an early, unplanned pregnancy themselves.
But is college too late to teach sex ed?
"They don't know as much as they think they do, and they don't know as much as we wish they did," says Andrea Kane, vice president for policy and strategic partnerships at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. She says research shows young adults think they know how to not get pregnant, but when pressed for details they're prone to myths and misinformation. For instance, she says, "4 in 10 young adults in this country believe it does not matter if you use birth control or not; when it is your time to get pregnant, you will."
The National Campaign has been pushing for more prevention efforts at the college level, and Kane says other states are showing interest in the new laws in Arkansas and Mississippi. She says even students who had sex education in high school might have forgotten the information, or may find it more relevant now that they're older.
Marie Sandusky has been counseling students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock since well before the state's law. She directs health services there, and says it's a challenge to help students understand the risk of pregnancy.
"There's this 18- and 19-year-old brain thing that's kind of like magical thinking," she says. "Sort of like, 'It's not going to happen to me.' "
With the new law, the university is being more proactive. This year, incoming freshmen had to complete an online lesson on preventing unplanned pregnancy. In their dorm rooms, they found a postcard with the health services phone number and the tag line, "Plan to postpone parenting."
Sandusky also drove home the risk factor at a recent orientation event. In an auditorium of 300 students, 22 of them found a red star under their seat. They received a rag doll on a string that they had to wear around their neck the rest of the evening. "And then we say, 'If you choose to become sexually active, and don't choose to practice safe sex or get on birth control," says Sandusky, "this many people will have a baby by the end of the year.' "
Of course, the hope is that Arkansas' push to prevent unplanned pregnancy will eventually bring down that number.