3 Ways Roe v. Wade’s Reversal Will Affect Students and Families and Disrupt the College Landscape
Sarah McMillan, Don McMillan & Amy Christie
Our college counselors at McMillan Education are singularly driven to guide developing young adults via our W.I.S.E. Method™ toward a campus where they can grow both academically and socially. Accordingly, we feel obliged to continually examine the social environment students will be entering with the same heightened focus we use to assess colleges’ academic programming — with the best fit for the student as our primary concern. In this way, we hope our insight as a group of highly seasoned college counselors — who have worked with students from 35 states and 60 countries representing a wide range of abilities and belief systems — will serve to clarify what the surrounding landmark political shifts mean to the student college planning process, admissions, and the longer-term impact on the greater college landscape.
In the short term, the future of colleges belongs to two groups: GenZ and professors. Though neither group is a monolith, we do know much about where their values stand relative to the increasingly divisive political issues that have come to characterize our country. Here are a few facts, according to Pew Research Center, about GenZ that we ought to consider before making predictions on the near and longer-term future of college in America. First, GenZ is the most racially diverse generation in American history. Second, GenZ is on pace to be the most college educated generation in American history. And third, GenZ is overwhelmingly liberal leaning, and, importantly, 70% of them believe it is the responsibility of the government to solve social problems.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that the most influential social issues impacting this generation of college students the past two years have been Black Lives Matter and COVID-19. As to the former, the Black Lives Matter movement has steered more teenagers towards liberal campuses in the Northeast and California. Likewise, COVID forced colleges to go test optional, leading to increased student diversity at universities across the nation. On the other hand, this year we’re seeing a counter reaction to this trend among some parents concerned about Critical Race Theory and among conservative state legislators working to influence both culture and curriculum in schools and colleges, like Florida’s Stop the WOKE Act. Not surprisingly, such movements are generally frowned upon by GenZers and college professors, both of whom lean toward more inclusive and liberal values, particularly in the realms of education, social ideas and policies.
This past week saw a trifecta of conservative renderings from the Supreme Court significantly impacting issues like the government’s ability to act on climate change and gun safety, both of which arguably have implications for students’ college choices when families take into consideration, as they do, students’ safety, health and well-being while away at college. Most notable among these rulings, of course, was the Court’s reversal of a woman’s right to choose and the related, future restrictions of her access to general reproductive health care. Here’s how we believe the reversal of Roe v. Wade will send a seismic shift through the college world, and how we can help our students/your children as we also prepare for future Supreme Court rulings likely to impact GenZers’ college choices.
1. We Believe Overturning Roe v. Wade Will Compel More Students to Choose Colleges Located in Blue States.
We already know the majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose. But it’s important to note that the younger generation is intensely pro choice. Whereas 2/3 of adults in the US support a woman’s right to have an abortion, a full 3/4 of 18- 29 year-olds favor it.
Suddenly students have a new question to ask themselves when building a college list. In addition to standard ones like “Do I learn better in small classes or large lectures?” or “Would I thrive in an urban, suburban or rural location?”, counselors and parents need to be prepared to answer a student’s question, “Is a woman’s right to choose and access to reproductive healthcare a key factor to finding my future home?” Perhaps this seems an overreaction and that teenagers are not likely to consider political decisions in their college search. This may have been true of previous generations. But GenZ is not only passionately political, but also believes the government should represent their political views and solve social issues. Such a core belief and its impact on a student’s college search process cannot be underestimated. Our job as college counselors is to be prepared to guide students thoughtfully and openly as we empower them to assess the environment that will value and promote their belief system, priorities, hopes and goals.
We predict that reverberations of this ruling will be experienced among colleges as soon as this upcoming application cycle. Public universities in red states will in the long-run risk a brain drain, even in “blue dot” areas of otherwise red states. Elite Universities such as Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, University of Texas at Austin, University of Virginia, and many others aren’t going to be immune, either. These colleges are prone to lose applicants from the socio-economic demographic of those capable of paying most or all of the tuition to out-of-state universities. Similarly, small private colleges in red states risk losing students to those located in blue states, where there are already more private college options.
It is important to consider here the stated ambition of anti-choice politicians to criminalize crossing state lines to receive an abortion. Such laws may be a nonstarter for many applicants, even ones not so gungho about being pro-choice. The potential increase in legislation promising to be more hostile to women’s access to any type of reproductive health care, from contraception and day-after medications to the freedom to travel for reproductive health reasons, will present a challenge for applicants considering colleges in anti-choice, anti-reproductive health care states, likely reducing applications.
Moreover, “politics,” strictly speaking, is not the only consideration for GenZ and their millennial parents. Indeed, the safety of students, particularly non-male students, is of grave importance to GenZ students and millennial parents alike. Think of the requisite explanation of the “blue lights” as your college tour guide walked backwards, passing the omnipresent security systems intending to reassure parents that their children will be safe on campus. While sexual assault is sadly extant on campuses across the country and is on the mind of every parent of a young woman (or female at birth) heading off to college, red states have swiftly begun the legislative process of restricting access to contraception and reproductive health care, including bans on necessary medical treatments separate from abortion. It is unthinkable for parents to imagine a daughter suffering the trauma of sexual assault on a campus only to be denied access to reproductive healthcare in its aftermath. It’s only reasonable, then, to conclude that students will avoid colleges in states that they believe deprive them of the healthcare they need.
2. We Predict that Current Students Will Transfer.
Our transfer practice already has seen record numbers the past two years since many students chose campuses they couldn’t visit during COVID. We anticipate that outraged students in trigger states will seek to move to areas that allow women the freedom to access reproductive health care and choice. And even for this upcoming fall, we could see “summer melt,” where students who have deposited a few hundred dollars at a college, but not yet paid that giant first tuition bill, decide not to enroll and re-apply at a later transfer deadline to universities in more inclusive states that embrace a woman’s right to choose. Students of GenZ, in particular from families who can afford to fund their education, have been known to be more than willing to “swallow” some money for their principles.
We believe that this phenomenon, though, will probably be shorter lived than the application consequences. Why? Because of the alacrity with which red states are moving to institute these changes. What will this exodus of transfers lead to? Likely a sharp decline in diversity even in “blue dot” colleges. Though GenZ is largely liberal, they are not a monolith writ large. They are, however, more monolithic within their respective views, meaning that most anti-choice students are white conservatives, who will likely end up being the overwhelming majority demographic of these colleges. Once the initial wave of transfers occurs, the declining interest of liberal-minded, first-time college applicants in these universities will contribute to their lack of diversity.
3. We Predict that Liberal Faculty in Conservative States Will Look to Find New Colleges.
On the town/gown front, about 90% of college professors consider themselves liberal or moderate politically, with moderates overwhelmingly being pro-choice. We believe that recent court decisions, as well as recent restrictions on curriculum and teaching in red states, will lead to professors who find themselves within that 90% looking to leave states that restrict their educational practices. They are also likely to boycott professional conferences in states like Florida and Texas, warm weather states whose economies have been significantly aided by hosting professional association events. The consequences of a professor drain on the learning experience of students in these schools is self-evident. And, paired with the changing demographics of students in red-state colleges, it is reasonable to believe that such institutions will become increasingly conservatively dogmatic, making themselves less attractive to liberal GenZ applicants.
So far colleges have been pretty quiet about Roe v Wade. Exceptions: The evangelical Liberty University in Virginia, founded by Jerry Falwell, expressed “our gratitude to Almighty God for the landmark decision,” whereas Emory in Atlanta called the decision “a painful regression.” We expect more colleges to speak out soon. And they should speak out — since abortion and women’s health care represent critical issues not only for young women, but also for young men and all genders.
Where does that leave us as adults who are working with students as they grow from teens into young adults, gaining more independence and responsibility for their lives and choices? As stewards of healthy and empowered adolescent development, it’s critical that we are prepared to discuss with college-bound students the Supreme Court decisions and their impact on these students’ search for their best fit college.
We all also need to keep in mind the loosening of gun restrictions amidst school and mass shooting incidents, and the effect of the reversal of climate change protections, both of which have been proven to have a disruptive if not traumatic impact on students’ college experience. And we need to look ahead to the real possibility that marriage equality and LGBTQ rights will be dismantled by the Court, which will carry with it yet another set of real-time implications in the college search for our LGBTQ students and families.
While the recent political shifts in the nation will certainly have an equal effect on our colleges, we will work to be prepared to answer young people’s questions about what the rapidly changing world around them means to their unique college journey and to their own set of priorities and goals, which we will, above all, continue to respect, support and nurture. We remain unyielding in our dedication to guiding our students towards the college that best suits their personal academic and social aspirations and needs. And we are here for our families as parents help their children work through the impact of what for many young people has been unsettling if not scary news in an already uncertain world.