Closing The Gap

Gen Z is re-thinking college and career plans in post-Roe America: ‘I want to leave the country’

Agnes Scott College student Jordan Simi (C) participates in a chant during a pro-abortion rights march and rally held in reaction to the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for a majority of the court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision later this year, in Atlanta, Georgia, May 3, 2022.
Alyssa Pointer | Reuters

There is an endless list of factors students consider while choosing a college: size, cost, campus life, proximity to home. 

But since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June — removing nearly 50 years of federal protections for abortions and giving states the right to make the procedure illegal within their jurisdictions — abortion access has become an increasingly influential consideration in students' college decisions. 

Of those planning to enroll in an undergraduate program sometime in the next 12 months, 39% said that the court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will affect their decision to attend college in a particular state. That's according to a BestColleges survey of 1,000 current and prospective undergraduate and graduate students conducted in July. 

Similarly, 43% of current undergrads said that the overturning of Roe v. Wade has led them to question whether they want to remain in the state where they are attending college or transfer elsewhere. 

In post-Roe America, location has never been more important to prospective and current college students deciding where to pursue a degree or build their career. 

Confusion and fear on campus: 'It's a really scary time'

Growing up, Lexi McKee-Hemenway and her friends in Sturgis, South Dakota, traded horror stories about people in their neighborhood who wanted an abortion and couldn't get one. McKee-Hemenway recalls once hearing about a pregnant young woman who couldn't access an abortion and had a horse kick her in the stomach, hoping it would cause a miscarriage. She died from her injuries.

Hearing such stories terrified McKee-Hemenway and inspired her to fight for better local access to reproductive health care. 

The 21-year-old, now a junior studying political science at the University of South Dakota, is the president of USD Students for Reproductive Rights.

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe in June triggered an abortion ban South Dakota lawmakers passed over 15 years ago that outlaws the procedure except when necessary to save the life of the pregnant person. 

McKee-Hemenway says she's been approached by several students since the start of the school year asking for help with obtaining an abortion — and with each request, McKee-Hemenway says she becomes "a little more convinced" that she does not want to stay in the U.S. after she graduates from college in 2024. "I want to leave the country," she says.

"There's nothing more unnerving than seeing the fear in people's eyes that they will either lose their job or their parents won't love them anymore if they get an abortion," she says. "But that's the reality of how people think and feel about abortion here." 

While South Dakota has always had restrictive abortion laws, June marked the first time the procedure was almost entirely banned. 

"I have a lot of mixed feelings: rage, fear, disappointment," McKee-Hemenway says. "Most of all, though, I have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that this is the United States now. … It's a really scary time to live here."

Abortion access is 'dominating' the college search conversation

Some college counselors are seeing a growing number of high school students factor state laws into their college decisions amid heightened concern from them and their families about the landscape of abortion in college towns throughout the U.S.

Kathleen Moore, the founder of Vox Cambridge College Consulting LLC, says one of her advisees, a soccer player, recently turned down an athletic scholarship to attend a competitive school in South Carolina, citing legislators' attempts to pass more restrictive abortion laws in the state. 

"He told me he wouldn't consider going to school there on ethical grounds," Moore tells CNBC Make It. "It's not a decision students are taking lightly." 

Lexi McKee-Hemenway and Kyshea Koehler at an event hosted by USD Students for Reproductive Rights.
Photo: Lexi McKee-Hemenway

Moore has been helping students navigate the college admissions process for eight years. Prior to the court's ruling in June, she says students and their families "rarely" wanted to discuss what a school's stance was on reproductive rights, or abortion access in the state. 

Now, however, "it's dominating the conversation," Moore says. 

"They want to know what the law is in the states they are applying, what statements, if any, school leaders have made on reproductive rights, and how accessible reproductive health care is near campus," she says. "These are all questions hardly anyone asked me before the overturn of Roe. … It's a huge change."

'The minute Roe was overturned, I felt like I became a second-class citizen'

Sam Goldstein had always dreamed of having a "traditional college experience," the kind that she saw on her favorite TV shows growing up: attending a big university with a sprawling campus, football games in the fall and parties in beer-soaked basements. 

She fell in love with the University of Wisconsin-Madison during her first visit to campus, and started school there in 2019 as a political science major. 

Goldstein, now a senior, had planned on remaining in Wisconsin after graduation to pursue a master's degree in public policy before Roe was overturned. 

In June, when a near-total abortion ban from the 1800s went into effect in Wisconsin after the court's ruling, those plans "went out the window," Goldstein says. 

The 21-year-old was in Wisconsin governor Tony Evers' office, where she was completing a summer internship, when the news broke. "I was in shock at first," Goldstein recalls. "I turned to my friend and I was like, 'Is this a joke?'" 

In the weeks following Roe's demise, Goldstein says she often walked past throngs of protestors both in support of and against abortion outside of the state capitol building, while inside, the phones were ringing "off the hook" with calls from constituents who had an opinion on the ruling.

Harvard University freshmen rally in Harvard Yard on May 4, 2022 to defend abortion rights.
Erin Clark | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Goldstein decided that she couldn't remain in Wisconsin for another two years to complete her master's degree. Now, she's planning on moving to Washington D.C. after graduation and applying for programs there. 

"I'm a full-blown Wisconsin resident — I pay taxes, I vote here, I work here and I love my school," she says. "But the minute Roe was overturned, I felt like I became a second-class citizen overnight. … I cannot stay here." 

'Do I even want to stay in the U.S.?'

Sydney Burton has spent many afternoons daydreaming about what life after college would look like while walking around the University of Georgia's campus: She'd find a creative job in Atlanta that she loved, rent an apartment close to downtown and see her mom on the weekends. 

Then, the Dobbs decision happened — and Georgia reinstated its ban on abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy in July. 

Burton, a senior studying art and advertising, says the news has "completely derailed" her plans to stay in the South after college. 

"You could feel everyone's panic the day Roe was overturned," the 21-year-old says. "It made me question everything, like, Do I want to continue to build my life in Georgia? Do I even want to stay in the U.S.?" 

Having "full autonomy" to make decisions about her body is non-negotiable for her, Burton says. And that's "impossible to achieve" with Georgia's restrictive abortion laws in place. 

"It's an incredibly tough decision to make," Burton says of figuring out where she will live and work in a couple of months. "On the one hand, I am really close with my family, and they are all in Georgia. But on the other hand, what would happen if I needed an abortion and I couldn't get one?"

She continues: "It's a really weird, scary concept to even think about. … Not having access to reproductive health care, and being able to make that choice yourself, has the potential to derail your whole life." 

Check out:

'We are drowning in despair': How 3 doctors are navigating the chaos of a post-Roe America

Turning down a $300K job, deferring dreams of Austin: How Roe's end is changing millennials' career plans—and lives

34% of younger workers are thinking of switching jobs due to company's stance on abortion, post Roe

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