February 21, 2024, Durham, NC – Though community college students make up nearly half of all U.S. undergraduate students, they are often overlooked by sexual and relationship health research. The limited amount of research on this population may make it difficult for community colleges to make evidence-based decisions about the types of resources and support they should provide to their students to promote their sexual health. Without accessible resources to learn about and manage their health, community college students may be at risk for unhealthy sexual and relationship behaviors. To address these gaps in research, iRT has been conducting the Community College Health Study for over two years with funding provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Over 1600 students from 34 campuses across the United States are taking part in the Community College Health Study to help us better understand how to promote the sexual and relationship health of community college students and prevent sexual assault. As part of this study, students are completing online questionnaires about their sexual health, relationships, media use, and previous experiences with sex education. Preliminary findings from the study provide insight into community college students’ previous experiences with school-based sex education since ninth grade, including whether they received any sex education at all, the topics that were covered, and the quality of their sex education.

Comprehensive sex education that is inclusive, is relevant to students’ diverse range of experiences, and provides accurate sexual health information on a variety of topics is an important way to promote sexual and relationship health in young people. Research shows that providing comprehensive sexual and relationship health information to youth may lead them to practice safe sex if they choose to have sex, hold healthier beliefs about relationships, and take steps to prevent sexual violence. Despite the importance of comprehensive sex education for youth, 39.6% of students surveyed as part of the Community College Health Study reported that they have not received any school-based sex education since ninth grade.

Though 60.4% of students in the Community College Health Study received sex education since ninth grade, the content and scope of their education may have been limited. To be optimally effective in promoting sexual health, sex education should cover an array of important sexual and relationship health topics, such as consent, sexually transmitted infections, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual assault, contraception, pregnancy, and gender roles, among other topics. However, students reported receiving limited education on important sex education topics since ninth grade. For example, only 32.1% of students received information about how to create and sustain healthy relationships. Only 31.17% of students received information about correct condom use, and only 47.2% received information about sexual consent. To see the full list of topics and data, view the second issue of the Community College Health Study newsletter by visiting our newsletter archive.

When students are more engaged and satisfied with their sex education, they learn more, and their education may have a greater positive influence on their sexual and relationship health. For this reason, students participating in the study were asked to report the quality of their previous school-based sex education. Overall, students rated their previous sex education experiences poorly. On a scale from one to five, with one being “not at all” and five being “extremely,” students rated how relevant and engaging, inclusive, accurate, empowering, and preparative their previous sex education was. The average rating for “relevant and engaging” was 2.6, the average for “inclusive” was 2.3, the average for “accurate” was 3.0, the average for “empowering” was 2.7, and the average for “preparative” was 2.7. To view an illustration of these findings, click here.

Without prior engaging, comprehensive, high-quality sex education, students may not have the skills or knowledge needed to take care of their sexual and relationship health by the time they reach community college. Community colleges have the opportunity to fill the gaps in students’ previous school-based sex education by offering engaging, high-quality sex education resources to students to promote sexual health.

Comprehensive sex education is relevant to all students. For students that are not sexually active or in a romantic relationship, comprehensive information about sexual health can prompt students to consider their own values and interests surrounding sex and relationships. If students do decide to have sex, the ideal time for them to receive information about topics like STIs and pregnancy prevention is before they have sex. To better meet the needs of students, regardless of their current sexual activity or relationship status, community colleges should consider incorporating sexual and relationship health promotion programs that are not only medically accurate but also engaging and inclusive in their curriculum. If you are interested in offering comprehensive sex education to college students, visit our website to learn more about Media Aware, an evidence-based comprehensive sexual and relationship health promotion program designed to fill gaps in previous sex education and meet the unique needs of students at your school.

To receive regular updates on and findings from the Community College Study, complete our sign-up form to receive the Community College Health Study newsletter. To view past editions of the newsletter, visit our newsletter archive.