At UNC Charlotte, a student group launched a free service to deliver emergency contraceptives and safe sex products to college dorms.
At Davidson College, a vending machine dispenses those pills alongside pregnancy tests, condoms, and menstrual products.
At Wingate University, the health center leaders are rapidly working to improve contraceptive access and hoping to install a vending machine of their own.
These efforts, which come at a time of heightened debate over reproductive freedom, are among many nationwide aimed at making it easier for students to get emergency contraceptives, commonly known as Plan B or the morning-after pill. These pills typically cost around $35-50 over-the-counter at pharmacies, but some colleges are providing them at a reduced cost or free of charge.
More than one third of women ages 15-24 say they have taken emergency contraceptive pills, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of National Survey of Family Growth, 2017-2019. (Though commonly confused with the abortion pill Mifepristone, emergency contraceptives don’t end established pregnancies; they prevent them if they are used soon after sex.)
With many young women concerned about their reproductive choices, universities now play a large role in student health and accessibility.
Local universities and colleges offer several programs to provide contraceptive access for students.
The Reproductive Justice Collective, founded in the spring semester 2023 by sophomore Deborah Effon, a public health major, is working to increase access to safe sex items such as condoms and emergency contraceptive pills. The group is also educating students about medication abortions and hopes to organize a yearly Reproductive Justice Week filled with educational and interactive events.
One of the organization’s main appeals for students is an on-campus delivery service called TxtDay, which allows people to order safe sex supplies, including Plan B. The contraceptives are delivered free of charge and anonymously to dorms or the student union. Each delivery includes instructions on usage. The supplies are funded by partnerships with Advocates for Youth in Washington, D.C. and other community organizations.
“Last month was when I added Plan Bs, and since then, every delivery I’ve done has included a Plan B,” Effon said in April. “So within the last month and a half, I’ve probably done about 35 deliveries.”
After setting up a table with information about their services at the student union recently, Effon has seen the demand for deliveries increase.
UNC-Charlotte’s Student Health Center also provides informational resources and access to contraceptives, including prescription birth control and over-the-counter emergency contraceptives. The health center pharmacy is open Monday through Friday and provides emergency contraceptive pills for a $20 flat rate, no insurance necessary.
The pharmacy lobby showcases several bulletin boards with guidance on sexual health and services offered and includes a “Safer Sex Station” which supplies a variety of condoms and lubricants. Along with this station, students can order these supplies online free of charge, and an employee package it together for pick-up. Cards with a QR code are available that link to a spreadsheet showing the pharmacy’s current stock of products and their prices.
Effon said many students are aware of these health center services, and said their website is informative.
The Center for Wellness Promotion also conducts educational events to teach students about safe sex practices and what services are offered. After each session, the center encourages students to submit feedback about the program and what they would like to see in the future.
“As we continue to educate students, we’re very strategic in how we approach the conversation and making sure we change the language that resonates with the students,” said Tyesha Terry, the associate director for wellness promotion initiatives.
After their most recent event, a session called Birth Control 101, Terry said they have seen more requests for online orders of safe sex supplies.
At Davidson College, access to contraception has been a student priority for several years. The campus’s chapter of Planned Parenthood Generation Action – a student organization focused on creating resources, increasing awareness, and encouraging political action around reproductive rights – installed a vending machine in 2017 that sells items including Plan B, pregnancy tests, condoms, and lubricants.
Named “Wellness Wendy,” the machine is in the student union building, which students can access seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. The machine sells Plan B pills for $10. Funding for the supplies comes from the university’s Center for Student Health and Well-Being, which purchases them in bulk. Executive board members are responsible for restocking and managing the machine.
Anaya Patel, the organization’s action chair, said that the central location and easy accessibility are important for students, especially those who don’t want items like Plan B listed on their school health accounts for parents to see.
Student response to the vending machine has been positive, she said.
“The vending machine is really important in destigmatizing a lot of concerns that people have about reproductive healthcare,” Patel said. “Awareness does help to create a culture that we’re accepting – people have sex, people get pregnant, and we just need to be able to support them in the ways that they need.”
The student health center has a doctor in-office Monday through Friday. Davidson representatives provided a statement, saying, “We currently offer a wide range of reproductive health care and education to Davidson College students. In addition to pregnancy and STD testing, we partner with medical providers to prescribe oral contraception or to discuss longer-term contraception. Students can purchase Plan B for $10 on campus and free condoms are available as well.”
Patel said it is a “little hard” to find information on what services the health center provides.
“I don’t think they do very much programming for reproductive health care, specifically, but they do a lot of other great programming,” Patel said. “That burden also falls on student health educators, peer health educators, and not necessarily admin.”
Patel said the organization has created resource guides for students to help explain abortion access, Plan B, and other reproductive health issues that have been hot topics since the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion last year. She recommended that the health center create similar resources to inform students about what’s available to them. The organization also conducts educational events for students.
In the last decade, Wingate has worked to increase access to contraception for students.
Nurse practitioners staff the student health center Monday through Friday. They provide a variety of products and can prescribe birth control. Sherrie McCaskill, a full-time nurse practitioner who has been with the university for 15 years, says the health center typically receives about 10 appointments each month related to women’s health.
“Word of mouth is really what helps the most,” McCaskill said. “When they come in, they feel comfortable asking questions and getting care.”
The health center does not stock emergency contraception, but can access it upon request.
McCaskill said she has plans to introduce a vending machine in a space accessible for students after hours. “Administration is very supportive of my idea; other universities are doing this, and we really need to have this available” she said.
McCaskill highlighted the importance of access after hours for time-sensitive products, such as emergency contraception, which is most effective within 72 hours of unprotected sex. The closest pharmacy is a 10-minute drive from campus, she noted. Students without transportation face more barriers accessing these products. Wingate has about 2,700 students and roughly 80% live on campus.
“I want to have some essentials available when we’re not open,” McCaskill said. She’d like to see the vending machine include not only emergency contraception, but other products and over-the-counter medication students would need.
McCaskill said that the main barrier to providing this service has been funding. The health center receives $50 fees from students each semester, but this funding primarily goes toward covering student insurance co-pay costs.
Atrium Health Partnerships
Atrium Health manages student health centers at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) and Queens University of Charlotte. Atrium Health declined requests for reporters to interview health center staff and nurses. Queens’ dean of students and JCSU’s director of student health services acted as representatives on the topic.
Johnson C. Smith University
At Johnson C. Smith University, if students need a prescription for birth control, Atrium’s pharmacy at the health center will provide it, said Dr. Marian Jones, director of Student Health Services. JCSU has also partnered with a local pharmacy, Premier Pharmacy. If Atrium cannot provide a prescription on campus, Premier Pharmacy can do so and deliver it to the health center.
Before the Atrium partnership, emergency contraception was not available to students at the health center, Jones said. They would send students to the local drugstore or health department.
Emergency contraceptives are not stocked in the pharmacy but are available upon request. The student health center is open Monday through Friday. A physician assistant who can write prescriptions is available Monday through Thursday.
Jones said she has not heard of any student initiatives or feedback about needing access to emergency contraceptives. There are currently no plans in place to provide students with greater access to emergency contraceptives through services such as vending machines.
“I never really gave it a thought to put it on campus, because the norm was to refer them out to the drugstore or the Health Department,” she said.
Condoms are provided at the health and wellness center. “They have access to condoms, until six o’clock. If after six, they would probably have to buy them,” Jones said. “The plan is to eventually put them in the residence halls to make them more available.”
The health center has held events about STI testing and safe sex in the past, but none specifically for reproductive health.
“We try to make sure our students have what they need, and we try to give them the educational materials that they need about a lot of health issues,” Jones said.
Queens University of Charlotte
The Health and Wellness Center at Queens University of Charlotte offers sexual health services and products including Plan B. Emergency contraceptives are provided free of charge to students, said Maria del Carmen Flores, vice president of student engagement and dean of students. The health center is open Monday through Friday with a nurse practitioner on-site.
Results from last year’s National College Health Association survey revealed that Queens students stated they were sexually active, but were rarely using contraceptives. After seeing these results, Queens’ leaders turned their focus to teaching safe sex practices. Flores said that the university is working with Atrium to improve outreach on campus about various health initiatives, but none yet specifically related to contraceptives.
A Queens student, Julia Gennett, said she was unaware that Health and Wellness offered free emergency contraceptives and remarked that she hadn’t tried obtaining it there before. She questioned why the university wasn’t doing more to inform students.
“It’d be so cool to see something like a vending machine on campus,” she said. “Plan B is sometimes hard to find at pharmacies – I’ve had to look online and drive a little further before.”