Every year in America, 19 million people contract a sexually transmitted disease. Half of all cases affect young adults aged 15 to 24, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. Statistically, this age group makes up only 25 percent of sexually active adults. Perhaps tellingly, that range includes most college students–and college is traditionally regarded as a place for sexual experimentation amongst young people. The numerical support is scant, but there is an argument that the growth of online colleges may be bringing STD infection rates down for younger generations.
Many students who don’t want to sign up for college courses online and choose to move away from home to attend a traditional college campus find themselves surrounded by their peers without any parental supervision for the first time. The sexual liberty that comes with this personal freedom may tempt some young adults to make poor decisions where their personal safety and health is concerned.
By contrast, the social structure of the online educational experience is much different. Instead of moving to a campus, online colleges allow students to access coursework and classes from a remote location. In this way, a student pursues a course of education while retaining the social structures he experienced prior to enrolling.
Muncie, Indiana’s Star Press printed an April 2012 story reporting a huge increase in sexually transmitted diseases in the state’s Delaware County. Delaware County is home to Ball State University, a campus that contains about 17,000 students; STD rates in this county were 625 cases to every 100,000 people. Monroe County, home to the 42,000 students attending Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, had a sexually transmitted disease and infection rate of 280 new cases per 100,000 people. No studies were done that conclusively linked the reported cases to college enrollment, but the inference is clear.
Colleges recognize that sexually transmitted diseases can create major concerns for a student’s future. In extreme cases, contracting an STD can lead to a student dropping out of school. Many schools are stepping up their game to raise awareness and student education on campus — concerns not felt by online-only institutions.
Keeping students aware of the consequences of their sexual decisions is an expensive proposition for most schools. The time that goes into counseling and the costs of medical treatments and supplies are considerable.
Grant money is one place for traditional schools to start. that Palo Alto College in Texas recently received a $85,000 grant to begin a peer-to-peer information society about sex called Proyecto Saber y Salud. The San Antonio Express-News reported in April 2012 that this grant, awarded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, will help to increase discussion among groups of minority students disproportionately affected by substance abuse issues and STDs such as HIV or hepatitis C. Keeping students open to honest debate is one goal of these programs, as free communication is the best way to make sure everyone is aware of current health issues.
There is no published research that presents a clear link between online education and a lower instance of STDs in students. Online education as a form of instruction is fairly new, and statistics pertaining simply to the number of students attending have only been kept in recent years. The demographic of online college students is often also different, as well, with many older adults logging in to finish degrees never completed or to enhance careers already in progress. This may skew some of the results. Still, on the whole, it can be convincingly argued that online education may be positively affecting STD rates among college-aged people.
Sexual liberty is something that develops when a child reaches maturity, and is widely regarded as a normal part of a child’s healthy maturation process. The sex itself is not what causes STDs, however. Risky, unprotected behaviors are the primary culprits. Online schools do not boast of the same parties, peer influences, and social pressures as more traditional college campuses. This means that online schools can save a lot of money counseling students in safe sex, and they also tend to see lower numbers of infected students.