By Alison Tanner, Board Member
I discovered I was pregnant a few months after I moved away from my childhood home for the first time to attend college. In a panic, I turned to my dormitory’s resident advisor (RA) for advice, the one-size fits all big sister for our floor of college freshmen. However, my RA was forced to share with me our university’s policy: pregnant and parenting students were not allowed to live in university-provided dorms. I already received full financial aid to pay for my tuition, books, and meals; I could not afford off-campus housing, diapers, and childcare as well.
Like most women who have abortions, I don’t regret my decision. But I still wish my university supported those who create families while they are students, rather than refusing to provide housing for pregnant and parenting students.
I was not the first, and surely won’t be the last, student to face housing insecurity because I became pregnant while living on campus. Currently, 1 in 4 undergraduate students are parents, and the unintended pregnancy rate is highest among 18 – 24 year-olds. Yet, universities have not updated their housing stock to reflect these changes in the student body. Rather, outdated housing policies like the one at my undergraduate university perpetuate the idea of a “normal student” as young, single, and dependent on their parents, leaving those with dependents of their own without the support they need to obtain the education they deserve.
Being forced to choose between my housing and my pregnancy sparked my passion for reproductive justice activism. Reproductive justice will be achieved when the decision to choose if, when, and how to create a family is free from coercion. Even though I chose to have an abortion, I plan to dedicate my career to ensuring that pregnant and parenting students can make reproductive decisions that are supported, not penalized, by their schools.
As it stands, countless schools have policies that explicitly prohibit student parents from living on campus, or implicitly do so by limiting student housing to “students only.” But these policies may be violating an important federal law: the Fair Housing Act.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) was amended in 1988 to prohibit discrimination in the rental of housing on the basis of familial status, and federal courts have recently held that university-provided housing is covered by the Act. Under the FHA, university policies that explicitly exclude students with children, or that implicitly exclude them by creating qualifications that adversely impact student parents, must be struck down. Universities have no excuse: financial constraints, liability concerns, and the preferences of non-parenting students do not justify discrimination.
Universities need a wake-up call: student parents should be supported, not punished, for their reproductive choices. Reproductive Justice litigators have a powerful, but as of yet untapped, tool in the Fair Housing Act; one that may force a cultural shift on college campuses towards a more inclusive environment for pregnant and parenting students.
To read more about using the Fair Housing Act to support student parents, check out my note, “Live and Learn: Using the Fair Housing Act to Advance Educational Opportunity for Parenting Students” in Volume 105 of the Georgetown Law Journal.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.