Will Anti-abortion Laws Drive Women to Colleges in Blue States?

Last week I saw an interesting headline on “Roe v. Wade repeal impacts where young women choose to go to college, researcher finds:”

“in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, female students are more likely to choose a university or college in states where abortion rights and access are upheld. The research, conducted with the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, indicates a potential impact on future workforces and economic development in states with stricter abortion laws as young people often live and work in the state they go to college.”

Well, that makes sense and it’s a published study so it must be true. That’s it, that’s the video. Goodnight everyone!

OK yeah, you know I don’t run that kind of channel so let’s dig into the details.

The Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade, which establishes the right to abortion, in June of 2022. This study, published this month in Economic Letters, examined application data from 71 of the top 100 institutions in the United States from 2018 to 2022. Nineteen schools were in states that had banned abortion following the Supreme Court decision, and 52 schools were in states that preserved abortion access.

They did, in fact, find a change in the number of female applicants: a drop of 1%. That presupposes a “1 percentage point increase in the share of male applicants. So, effectively, this represents a roughly two percentage-point swing in the mix of applicants by binary gender.”

While statistically significant and interesting, that is not a lot. It’s one out of 100 presumably cisgender women not going to a college in a red state.

Add to that a few other issues that it doesn’t look like this study controlled for: first of all, what else happened between 2018 and 2022? That’s right, a global pandemic that hit red states worse than blue states. In fact, their data shows that the number of female applicants has been steadily dropping since 2020, though not to the point of statistical significance, to be fair. While men were more likely to be negatively affected by COVID, women are more likely to be the caregivers in the home, meaning that they’re the ones who may have been more likely to give up their college ambitions to take care of parents, children, or other family members. In fact, that was the finding earlier this year when researchers noticed that female college enrollment dropped at twice the rate of male college enrollment between 2020 and 2022.

Finally, there’s a bit of a timing issue: this research looked at college applications for the fall of 2022. The authors note that most of the colleges they included had an application deadline for that semester that was December of 2021–six months before the Supreme Court decision happened. While it WAS in the news back then as a possibility, I just don’t think we can expect to see much of an impact that quickly, especially considering all the confounding factors.

So honestly I just can’t see why this is a study that deserves any kind of headline, and I wouldn’t be making an entire video about it were it not getting spread around a bit. If anything, it’s a very very preliminary finding that requires more research once more time has passed.

But the premise is definitely solid: a Gallup poll in April of this year found that 72% of students currently enrolled in college say the reproductive health laws in their state has some influence on their decision to remain there, and 60% of unenrolled adults said it has some influence on where they decide to enroll. In both groups, people under the age of 24 were most concerned about the issue. 

Of course, what you report on a survey isn’t necessarily what you’d do in real life, AND these are people who just say that the reproductive rights laws are just one part of their decision, which will surely include other important factors like tuition cost, housing, and finding an institution that matches their other values and interests.

I did find this tidbit very interesting, though: among the prospective students who reported that these laws are important to their decision, 74% of REPUBLICANS favored states with fewer abortion restrictions. That’s an incredibly large number of Republicans who clearly disagree with their party’s focus on controlling women’s bodies.

These abortion restrictions are so wildly unpopular, and they are having such a clear and obvious negative impact on the people who live in these red states, that I can absolutely see future research showing that the institutions in those states losing students. I mean hell, we’re already seeing Florida’s conservative policies lead to a record shortage of teachers this school year. The president of the Florida Education Association says it’s due to both bad pay AND bad laws: 

“Teachers are saying, look, I don’t even know if I can talk about a shooting that happened in Jacksonville and how it was race related or the fact that we have people who are neo-Nazis in Orlando. We don’t know if we can talk about those things without running afoul of the law and yet those are important issues that students see on the news or see on social media and really want to discuss,” Spar said.”

The problem is even worse for cis women and other people with working uteruses. College is when many people become regularly sexually active for the first time, and that inevitably leads to broken condoms, forgotten birth control, drunken mistakes, and unfortunately sexual assault. In a state that has outlawed abortion, those things can easily snowball to a bigger problem: find a way to get to another state or figure out how to get through the next nine months of your body not being yours. Richer, more privileged women may be able to handle it. Marginalized people will not, and the majority of them will end up dropping out or pursuing unsafe abortions that endanger their health.

Even if a student can avoid that problem, many people choose a university in a place they see themselves living longer term. What happens when you graduate, stick around, and actually want to start a family? Mothers in states with abortion bans are THREE TIMES more likely to die than mothers in other states, and their infants are 30% more likely to die. And again, the people who suffer the most are marginalized: “Native American women’s maternal mortality rates were 4.5 times higher than those of white women and Black women’s rates were 2.6 times the rate of white women.”

That’s why, even though I know there’s a very good chance women will choose to not apply to colleges in states with abortion restrictions, and I HOPE they don’t end up in those states, for their own sakes, for the sake of society as a whole I hope it’s NOT true. Because this absolutely will snowball: poor, marginalized people won’t have a choice of where to go to college, so many of them will stay in those red states, get pregnant, and die or drop out or both. Wealthier women will go elsewhere to get a good college education, where they will likely come out more liberal than they went in, and they will likely then start their careers in the more liberal states. That will leave those marginalized people to fend for themselves politically, as states like Texas and Mississippi just turn redder and redder.

What’s the solution? Well, reestablishing legal abortion at the federal level would be a good start. And a great follow-up might be supporting the efforts of organizations like Plan C and Just the Pill, which endeavor to bring bodily autonomy to people regardless of what state they happen to live in.
Another good solution is to vote! I know, I know, but it CAN help: if you’re watching this the day it comes out, there is currently an election happening in many places in the United States! If you live in Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, for instance, you can help protect abortion rights in your state. So do that, please and thank you!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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