Opinion Extra

Kershner, Lindley: We could use more work on campus sexual health

"USC moves into the top spot."

It's fall in Columbia, and those six words are sure to get the attention of anyone with a pulse. When they appeared recently in The State, however, the topic wasn't football; it was sex. A national sexual health report card that annually ranks nearly 150 colleges on such things as student opinions of health centers and availability and cost of contraception ranked the University of South Carolina No. 1.

This recognition will not bring the sea of headlines that come with national championship banners. Nonetheless, the "team" of educators, doctors, nurses, professors, counselors and student volunteers who work daily to promote healthy decisions about sex, particularly within the Office of Sexual Health and Violence Prevention, should be commended.

We should all stand and applaud USC's commitment to sexual health - as loudly and vociferously as we would a big win on the football field. At the same time, we should look around us. The study results show a great variation in what's offered in terms of sexual health around the country.

Clemson University, the only other S.C. school included in the survey, ranked 66th (an improvement from 101st last year). This is not intended to add fuel to the Clemson/Carolina rivalry but rather to underscore the point that, sadly, the robust menu of services offered by USC is not available to many college students across the state. And that is a tragic missed opportunity.

Consider two points:

Two-thirds of teen pregnancies in South Carolina occur among 18- and 19-year-olds, and 75 percent of these pregnancies are unintended. More than half of pregnancies among 20- to 24-year-olds are unintended. While the majority of college representatives indicated that an unintended pregnancy would make it harder for 18- and 19-year-olds to complete school and agreed that colleges have a role to play in preventing pregnancy, too many students do not have access to affordable and accessible reproductive health services.

More than 20,000 18- to 19-year-olds were enrolled in one of South Carolina's two-year technical colleges last year, and more than 200,000 students of all ages are enrolled in four-year schools across the state.

Clearly, college campuses offer a unique opportunity to provide services and education to older youth. However, both two- and four-year colleges have a lot of room to grow in order to meet the needs of this population.

As an example, most colleges offer a "College 101" or "Freshman Focus" course to help incoming students acclimate to college life. However, only about a third of these programs include information about sexual health.

Most two-year schools in South Carolina do not have a student health center at all.

While 85 percent of four-year colleges have a health center, there are few contraceptive options available to students. Most health centers provide male condoms, but only 29 percent provide birth control pills, and fewer still provide other forms of contraception such as Depo Provera, the patch or diaphragms.

If we are going to have a vibrant economy, South Carolina needs healthy, educated young people who are prepared to not only enter but also succeed in college. Colleges play a critical role in creating environments where young people learn, grow and have the opportunity to pursue their chosen professions. Colleges can and must do a better job including sexual health information and services as part of that environment, so that young people are empowered to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies and become sexually healthy adults.

If more colleges were engaged in supporting the sexual health of students, all of South Carolina could reap the benefits.