Incoming college students next fall will begin receiving information during orientation to raise awareness about unplanned pregnancies.
Earlier this year, state legislators passed Act 943 of 2015, following a similar move taken by Mississippi policymakers last year.
The bipartisan law -- sponsored by Reps. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, and Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale -- gives the state Higher Education Coordinating Board the task of developing a plan for preventing unplanned pregnancies in Arkansas, which has the highest rate of teen births in the nation.
"This came about because Deborah Ferguson and I were both frustrated at the teen pregnancy rate in Arkansas," Lundstrum said. "It's usually about the college freshman who gets into school and gets into trouble."
The most frustrating part, she said, was seeing the students' "lost hope" and "lost potential." Many times, teens who have unplanned pregnancies have a harder time making it through postsecondary education. They also are more likely to have another teen birth, research has shown.
"This is about keeping that young lady and that young man in college," Lundstrum said.
The plan comes at a time when the state's higher-education leaders are looking to raise college completion and graduation rates. Decreasing the number of unplanned pregnancies among older teens could help boost those numbers.
Teenage birthrates have fallen nationwide to historic lows. In 2013, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the teen birthrate in the U.S. was 26.5 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19. That rate is down about 57 percent since 1991, when the federal agency recorded 61.8 births per 1,000 teenage girls.
The federal health and research agency found that Arkansas had the highest teen birthrate in 2013, with 43.5 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19. The rate nearly doubles to 82.7 births per 1,000 girls for ages 18 and 19, according to the agency.
Arkansas spent about $129 million on teen childbearing in 2013, with about 4,155 teen births, state records show.
Legislators said the state's colleges and universities are "a critical venue" for addressing unplanned pregnancies in older teens.
In 2014, Mississippi lawmakers called on higher-education leaders in that state to create a plan to address the issue. It was the first effort of its kind in the nation.
Higher-education leaders there submitted their plan later that year, focusing on "three Cs: curriculum, counseling and health care clinics on campuses," said Kell Smith, director of communications and legislative services at the Mississippi Community College Board.
They asked for about $1.2 million -- $50,000 for each of the state's 15 community colleges, eight universities and its medical center -- to implement the plan.
Instead, Mississippi legislators allocated $250,000 for the plan's implementation and came up with a funding formula, giving the lion's share -- about $41,000 -- to the state's largest two-year college, Hinds Community College, and the smallest portion -- about $7,700 -- to its smallest two-year school, Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Smith said.
"To be honest with you, each university already has in place health care clinics," he said, addressing why the state's universities did not receive funding. "They might have been further along because oftentimes they have more resources than we do."
On July 1, Mississippi's higher-education institutions began rolling out the plan. It looked different at each campus, with some schools incorporating the material into freshmen orientation, and others hiring more employees to drive the initiative, Smith said.
Smith said he was beginning to collect information on the colleges' efforts, but it was too soon to know what the results would be.
In Arkansas, higher-education leaders aren't looking to reinvent the wheel.
A 25-member working group -- led by Angela Lasiter, a program specialist at the Higher Education Department -- has looked over free materials from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that are available to colleges and universities. The national nonprofit created online lessons and videos that can be used in orientation sessions and student courses.
"We're going to produce our own videos," Lasiter said. "We want to create something that is Arkansas."
The videos will include Arkansans, who had unplanned pregnancies, talking about some of the obstacles they face, she said. The group will start production of the videos after Christmas.
The working group also considered five areas to address in the orientation materials: pregnancy prevention, interactive and engaging online availability, connecting students with services, discussions on responsible behaviors, and a program that would cover family planning and contraception.
It also considered ways to present the information, including residence-hall orientation sessions, campus town- hall events and meetings of student organizations, including fraternities, sororities and athletic teams.
The materials will be for female and male college students.
The plan also calls for identifying that challenges that single parents face, including child care, transportation and financial aid. It also hopes to tap the opportunities of having current college students reach out to younger teens to serve as "mentors or role models of successful behaviors and healthy choices."
The mentoring will be modeled on an education renewal zone -- an initiative to improve public school performance and student success -- at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Lasiter said. SAU students and the zone's director, Roger Guevara, go into area schools and mentor the younger children on various topics, she said.
"We're going to take the work that [SAU] is doing and model that in other schools, if they would like to do that," Lasiter said. "None of this is prescriptive."
Some of the state's higher-education institutions already go beyond the legislators' call, leaders said.
At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, incoming students have discussions about sexual responsibility in "a creative and fun way," said Marie Sandusky, the university's director of health services and a family nurse practitioner. UALR students also take part in an annual multimedia event, where they watch a video on students who had unplanned pregnancies.
"I remember one young girl who said she could only study when [the baby's] asleep," Sandusky said. "[The video] brought the message home in a personal way. These are students that they can relate to and would help them get a wake-up call."
Also during the event, a large number of people are placed in a room with chairs, some of which have index cards in them. The index cards indicate the percentage of students who will have unplanned pregnancies by the end of the year, Sandusky said.
"We try to use fun, light ways to help them be aware and make conscious decisions," she said.
Another avenue that the university has used is a student organization that meets weekly in the residence halls. There, students talk about healthy relationships, abstaining from sex or practicing sex in a responsible way.
Things weren't always this way at UALR, Sandusky said. When she joined the university in 2008, there were not comprehensive student health services, she said.
The school had "many students" who would get started in college, and then find out they were pregnant, she said. "It's really heartbreaking to tell someone that news when they weren't planning for it."
It's a bigger disappointment for students who had to work hard to get into college in the first place, she said.
Sandusky said she lobbied the university's administration at the time and got to help the university's health services office.
The office can run laboratory tests and works alongside counselors, who provide individualized education and help walk students through situations. Counselors hold decisions about abstinence, or if the student is sexually active, about parenting and delaying parenting, she said.
Not all colleges and universities in the state have on-campus clinics. In a survey of the state's schools, about eight higher-education institutions said they didn't provide health services on campus.
But Sandusky said even smaller colleges can find ways to provide health services to students by partnering with local clinics. Or, she said, a small school could hire a practitioner to visit the campus once a week instead of hiring a full-time nurse.
Sandusky applauded the state's recognition of the teen pregnancy problem and its efforts to address it on a larger scale.
"For a lot of students, they don't really realize that they can get pregnant," she said. "I think it has to do with their age, their stage in life -- they're just not through growing up."
Often, they feel invincible, like "it'll never happen to me," she said.
"Raising awareness, education and providing services can really make a difference," she said. "Teenagers are getting sex education whether or not we're planning it the way we want to. Certainly, when we're looking at how important it is for retention and graduation and for students in this state to be successful, [unplanned pregnancies] can really delay that and certainly hijack that. It's just so much harder."
Metro on 11/01/2015
Print Headline: Curtailing teen births now a higher-ed goal