Dialogues regarding sexual health and well-being at Rice and at college campuses across the U.S. often neglect one important issue: STI testing and accessibility. STI testing should be a routine part of any sexually active college student’s life, and the sexual health resources available to Rice students should reflect this need. While Rice Student Health Services offer STI testing, these screenings are expensive. A Rice student can expect to pay $99 to get tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS and syphilis at the Health Center, which poses a significant financial barrier for some students and discourages routine testing.
At Rice, we are often under the impression that a safe environment, where most students are aware of the risks that sexual activity poses, excludes us from the consequences of sex. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, young people acquire half of all new STIs, and one in four sexually active females have an STI. Assuming Rice at least marginally correlates with this national average, STIs are one of the most common health issues facing our student body. As such, providing affordable options for students seeking STI testing should be a primary responsibility of the student health center.
Some efforts have been made to provide students with free testing on campus. In 2012, Rice Health Advisors from Hanszen and Brown Colleges worked with well-being specialists and staff at the Health Center to provide free testing for HIV and syphilis. This was a response to National College Health Assessment surveys that revealed while over 50 percent of Rice students had a sexual partner, only 12 percent had been tested for HIV and less than 70 percent used a barrier method. While these numbers are dated, they reflect Rice students’ apathy toward STI testing.
Numerous public health agencies recommend routine STI screenings for adolescents ages 15 to 24, yet the price tag is discouraging Rice students from getting tested at a time when screenings are most important. In many cases, STIs are also asymptomatic, which means that many who have STIs will be less likely to get tested, especially if they do not experience any symptoms.
Recognizing the significant cost of STI testing, many universities have found alternative to accommodate student financial needs. Harvard University, for instance, provides all students with free STI testing at the student health center. University of Texas, Austin does not provide free testing, but accepts the majority of student health insurances to cover the cost of testing. At Vanderbilt, student health insurance covers many of the STI tests, with the co-pays ranging from $0 to $8 per test.
While Houston health centers like Planned Parenthood provide low-cost or even free STI testing with insurance, many students do not have access to reliable transportation. Even for those who do, the time it takes to make an appointment and drive to an off-campus site discourages students from pursuing these alternative options. The Health Center is by far the most convenient site for STI testing for all students but not the most affordable.
We understand that overhauling the payment system in place at the Rice Student Health Center would be a lengthy bureaucratic process. We understand that there are reasons the health center does not accept insurance that are out of our control. However, the cost of STI testing at the Health Center discourages sexually active students from routine screenings and poses a risk to the sexual health of our student body.
With all the barriers that might prevent students from STI testing — including cost, time and possible stigma — Rice should be doing all it can to encourage students to meet their sexual health needs. We believe this is best accomplished when students work together with the health center to find affordable solutions for our community.