The recent Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court, which overturned half a century of abortion rights, will affect wide areas of society, and higher education will be no exception. The impacts on higher education will fall into (at least) five areas: reduced college enrollment, particularly for Black women; disruption of training in medical schools; changes in on-campus student health services; reductions in out-of-state enrollment in anti-abortion states; and shifts in faculty location decisions away from anti-abortion states. For some of these issues, existing research provides a useful guide to likely outcomes. Other outcomes will take time to unfold and depend on how anti-abortion restrictions and enforcement evolve in individual states, but informed guesses are possible.

There is very solid evidence that restricting abortion reduces educational achievement for women, at least for Black women. As part of the Dobbs case, 154 economists filed a Brief of Amici Curiae that summarizes economic research findings on the effects of abortion availability and that reads in part:

Abortion legalization has had downstream impacts on women’s social and economic lives. Economists have also used the tools of causal inference to measure the effect of abortion legalization on women’s social and economic outcomes more broadly…Studies show that in addition to impacting births, abortion legalization has had a significant impact on women’s wages and educational attainment, with impacts most strongly felt by Black women.

One study finds that recent targeted restrictions by states that reduced access to abortion for women under the age of 18 reduced college enrollment and completion for Black women by one to three percentage points. Presumably, the elimination of most abortions will have a much larger impact, though the availability of medicinal abortion may provide alternative routes for some. Other research looking at the effect of allowing minors access to abortion without parental notification shows large positive effects on college graduation rates for Black women, who tend to have higher levels of unmet need for contraception than white women.

Some part of college enrollment shifts is due to avoiding unwanted births that make attending college difficult or impossible; some part also appears to be due to women with greater access to abortion and control over fertility timing choosing to make larger investments in human capital. Evidence from the pre-Roe period shows that young women’s access to abortion—even more than access to contraception—allowed women to delay marriage and motherhood.

Read the full article about abortion rights and higher education by Shelly J. Lundberg and Dick Startz at Brookings.