Arkansas Schools College Students In Avoiding Pregnancy : Shots - Health News Arkansas, a Bible Belt state that emphasizes abstinence-only in high school, is launching a mandatory program in its colleges and universities on strategies to prevent unplanned pregnancy.
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A New Course At Arkansas Colleges: How To Not Get Pregnant

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A New Course At Arkansas Colleges: How To Not Get Pregnant

A New Course At Arkansas Colleges: How To Not Get Pregnant

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Most teen births in this country are actually to young adults - women who are 18 and 19-years-old. The highest rate is in Arkansas. It's a Bible Belt state that pushes abstinence only in high school. But this year a new law requires Arkansas colleges and universities to tackle unplanned pregnancy. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, it means many students will now get sex ed in college.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It's orientation week at Arkansas Tech University.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: Yeah, so we're going to start with the student handbook.

LUDDEN: A classroom of freshmen are given a rundown on campus rules, a primer on sexual assault and consent. And then because of the state's new law to address unplanned pregnancy, they watch this video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Once I found out, I lost a lot of friends. I lost - family just really kind of looked down on me.

LUDDEN: Arkansas students talk about the struggles of having a child, the challenge of staying in school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Went from not having any responsibility to having a full-time responsibility.

LUDDEN: Freshmen will hear more about unplanned pregnancy in a semester-long college success course, in group chats in their dorms and during sexual-health week around Valentine's Day. Like almost every student in this classroom, Sydney Blackwell says it all hits home.

SYDNEY BLACKWELL: I think there was anywhere between five to 10 girls in my grade that got pregnant throughout middle school all the way to high school. I remember in eighth grade there was a girl that never made it to ninth grade because she got pregnant.

LUDDEN: Only 4 of these 20 students say they had sex ed in high school. Brooklynn Evans says she didn't get much at home either.

BROOKLYNN EVANS: Because, like, my parents were too uncomfortable to talk about it, so we never talked about it.

LUDDEN: Did you have the birds and the bees discussion?

EVANS: No, we learned with our cousins. And you know, we all talked about it not with our parents or anything.

LUDDEN: Same with Carlos Morales. He thinks it's great his college is bringing this up, but...

CARLOS MORALES: It would've been better to have a class earlier during our middle school.

KRISTY DAVIS: I don't think it's too late to introduce the information.

LUDDEN: Kristy Davis is Arkansas Tech's associate dean for student wellness. She says it may not be politically possible to mandate sex ed earlier, but it still makes sense to target those in college.

DAVIS: Students are away from home for the first time in many cases. They have access to resources there are health and wellness center. So I do think it's appropriate to make sure that they're prepared and they have the information to make good decisions for themselves.

LUDDEN: Arkansas's law is modeled on one that took effect last school year in Mississippi. Both were bipartisan and surprisingly uncontroversial. Colleges come up with their own programs, says Angela Lasiter with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. She says some places are even weaving the topic into their curriculum in classes like stats, English or speech.

ANGELA LASITER: We would like for you to write a 10-minute speech on how to prevent unplanned pregnancies - boom, bam.

LUDDEN: The goal, she says, is to get students talking. And if they also talk with their little sisters and brothers, all the better. Lasiter says when young parents drop out of college or never get there in the first place, there's also a larger impact - a nearly $130 million hit each year to the state's economy.

LASITER: Lower income, more people on welfare, a less higher quality of living. Then you have the repeat. Their children are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies. And so we're wanting to break the cycle.

MARIE SANDUSKY: Here is the Aryans office.

LUDDEN: Marie Sandusky directs health services at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Since well before the new law, she's been counseling students on the risk of pregnancy.

SANDUSKY: There's this 18 and 19-year-old brain thing that's just kind of, like, magical thinking sort of, like, it's not going to happen to me.

LUDDEN: In fact, research shows that nationally, 4 in 10 young adults think it doesn't matter if you use birth control or not, that getting pregnant is mostly a question of timing and chance. This year incoming freshmen had to complete an online lesson on preventing unplanned pregnancy. Sandusky also drove home the risk at one event, handing out little bags to 22 out of 300 students.

SANDUSKY: They got this little gift.

LUDDEN: A rag doll on a string they had to wear around their neck.

SANDUSKY: And then we say if you choose to become sexually active and don't choose to practice safe sex or get on birth control, this many people this year will have a baby by the end of the year.

LUDDEN: Of course the hope is that in coming years Arkansas' mandated prevention campaign will drive down that number. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Little Rock

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