There are more out lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) college students today than there have been at any other time in the history of higher education. In decades past, many young LGBT people experienced their coming out processes in college, yet today’s rising college freshmen have increasingly become more out and more vocal in high school and even in middle school.
This new generation of LGBT students has likely endured harassment growing up and are now looking for something better in college—a place to learn, live, and grow, and most importantly, somewhere to be safe and out as LGBT young people.
Despite the common perception that colleges and universities are relatively safe and accepting places for LGBT students, too many college administrators and staff remain ignorant or ambivalent toward their responsibility for the education and safety of the LGBT young people on campus.
Ask a college official to identify who is out and LGBT on campus and you will likely hear references to the students in the LGBT campus group or a student leader involved in student government. You might even get a blank stare as if the question is too impossible to know. The assumption, which is not correct, is that all out LGBT college students are part of the club or involved in campus activities—or even worse, that it is not the college’s responsibility to know this information.
College and university administrators, staff, and faculty are, indeed, responsible for the education and safety of all students. No one seriously debates otherwise and most administrators and staff would never disagree, but there exists an obvious gap between general awareness and on-the-ground, practical implementation of such wisdom.
Harassment High, Protections Low
In September 2010, our organization, Campus Pride, a national organization for LGBT students and campus safety, published our landmark research report, “The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People.” It highlights the alarming degree of harassment faced by LGBT students on campuses today—and even worse, the lack of institutional commitment toward LGBT populations by colleges and universities.
A third of LGBT students, faculty, and staff consider leaving campus as a result of harassment.
Only 13 percent of colleges have non-discrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation and just six percent are inclusive of protections for transgender students. Institutional support in programs and services for LGBT students is below 7 percent nationally. All too often, the safety of LGBT students is left on the backs of these students who must undertake their own efforts to ensure their own safety, campus, and policy inclusion, programs, and support services.
While we do not know the actual number of LGBT students who drop out of college or transfer due to harassment, the Campus Pride report cites that a third of LGBT students, faculty, and staff consider leaving their campus as a result of harassment on campus.
Identification and Action
The first step toward increasing campus safety, institutional support, and administrative accountability begins at the initial moment of contact with potential students. Colleges and universities cannot provide necessary services or maintain proper safety and campus climate without first knowing its students and who they are, including their LGBT students.
Outreach to LGBT students should involve inclusive recruiting programs like Campus Pride’s National LGBT-friendly College Fair Program, hosted for the past five years in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Charlotte. This year, the fair expands into Dallas, offering out LGBT and ally students the opportunity to connect directly with campuses that consider themselves LGBT-friendly and that are inclusive in campus programming and services.
After initial contact and recruitment, the inclusion of demographic questions asking students about their sexual orientation and gender identity on admission forms gives university administrators the data they need to properly implement inclusive policies, programs, and practices for the LGBT students entering their schools.
It is imperative that colleges and universities give these out LGBT students the option to self-identify on the college admission form. This way, the campus can take responsibility for the LGBT student experience right from the beginning.
Campus Pride initially proposed the inclusion of an LGBT-identity question on admission forms in 2007, when launching its national benchmarking tool, the LGBT-friendly Campus Climate Index. Last year, Elmhurst College (Ill.) became the first U.S. institution of higher education to take up this challenge. In the first semester of applications, five percent of applicants voluntarily identified themselves as LGBT and 90 percent of applicants answered the question.
Since Elmhurst’s decision, Harvard, Duke, and Yale School of Law have all been reported as considering the addition of an optional LGBT-identity question on their admission form. Most recently, the University of California Academic Senate and Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools passed their recommendation to allow incoming students to identify their sexual orientation and gender identity.
For a long time, colleges have asked students about race/ethnicity, religion, and other optional demographics at the application stage. Giving LGBT students equal treatment in this regard signals that institutions are also committed to the well-being of LGBT students—their retention, safety, academic success, and overall experience. Those signals tell students what the institution values. Not only does the question enable administrations to serve the needs of LGBT students, but it also serves a greater purpose by sending a message of inclusion and diversity to the entire campus community.
Higher ed institutions that claim to be LGBT-friendly have nothing to lose by asking this optional identity question on their college admission forms. Instead, these colleges have everything to gain by being more aware and accountable to their out LGBT student population and supporting their academic success.