Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Emergency Contraceptive Standards at Universities Why are there such discrepancies in availability of emergency contraceptives across college campuses?

By Emma Jelliffe Published December 5, 2019

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The stark reality is that many universities do not offer their students the support or access they need, and this is especially true for emergency contraceptives. It is shocking to see the broad range of emergency contraceptive access that exists across college campuses - from no access at all to 24/7 access through Plan-B vending machines in student dormitories.

For the population of college age students, access to contraception is a particularly critical aspect of physical and mental health services. Young adults at universities across the nation are in the midst of a period of their lives characterized by experimenting with sexual activity; whether they were previously sexually active or not, the college years are a time of sexual and romantic exploration. At this vulnerable time, it is of paramount importance that university health plans offer comprehensive access to contraception and education on sexual health. Access to condoms, birth control, and emergency contraceptives, are all aspects of sexual health that students should be, or rather need to be, made aware of on their campus.

The stark reality is that many universities do not offer their students the support or access they need, and this is especially true for emergency contraceptives.It is shocking to see the broad range of emergency contraceptive access that exists across college campuses - from no access at all to 24/7 access through Plan-B vending machines in student dormitories.

The students who are at most risk of limited access to emergency contraceptives are those attending religious universities such as the Catholic and Jesuit universities.Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States does not permit the sale or distribution of any form of contraception, including condoms, through the student health services. Georgetown students face extreme barriers to sexual and reproductive healthcare that make them vulnerable to the possible consequences of unprotected sex. Hoyas for Choice, a student led group at Georgetown, has worked towards increasing access to contraception on campus and advocating for increased coverage by the university. The fact of the matter is that although their campus is located in an urban setting, students often feel the effect of the “college bubble” in which it is hard to find the time between classes and extracurriculars to travel off campus to a drug store where they can purchase condoms or Plan-B over the counter More than this, not all students are fortunate enough to have a drug store nearby or a means of getting there. The need for easy access in a timely manner is generated by the fact that many emergency contraceptives have a limited period of effectiveness, requiring that they be used within a few days of unprotected sex. Plan-B, for example, is effective only up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.  Beyond the time restriction, students also face financial restrictions: Emergency contraceptives can cost between $30 to $60 dollars—an expense that college students on a tight budget may not be able to afford. If student health services on campus were to offer emergency contraceptives, both time and monetary costs towards students would be greatly reduced—and the wider community at large would benefit from youth with better sexual and reproductive health.

There are however several universities that do a good job at recognizing the urgency of providing easy and affordable access to sexual health services. As a student of Cornell University, I am fortunate to have a student health planin which Plan B is offered for free without a prescription, Ella is available by prescription only, and a Copper-T IUD is available through an appointment with a health care provider. Cornell University’s student health plan offers students affordable options to emergency contraception on campus, eliminating time and cost barriers that negatively impact student health.

Other universities, such as Stanford University, go even further by offering “wellness” vending machinesin which students have easy on-demand access feminine hygiene products, Advil, Claritin, pregnancy tests, condoms, and Plan-B. The implementation of these vending machines has been seen as an important step towards stigma-free access to contraception on college campuses and is a growing trend across the nation.

Although it is unlikely that all universities will follow in Stanford’s footsteps and increase student access to emergency contraception through on-demand vending machines, all universities should be required to offer their student populations some form of affordable access to emergency contraception. It is unacceptable that at some universities rigid policies regarding provision of emergency contraceptives create extreme barriers to students’ sexual and reproductive health. No student should be at a higher risk due to the university that they attend, and it is in the best interest of students to engage in student advocacy, such as the work done by Hoyas for Choice to demand a higher standard of sexual health on college campuses. If not, universities will continue to jeopardize the health and wellbeing of their students.