The Path Forward: LGBT Retention and Academic Success

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The world is changing. That fact is a constant in life. Institutions of higher education need to constantly be evolving as a result, listening and responding to the needs of increasingly diverse student populations.

Today’s students, regardless of the identities they bring to campus, face many challenges that can hinder their movement toward graduation. For nearly a decade now, organizations like Campus Pride have been challenging higher education to hold administrators accountable for tracking LGBT retention and academic success, as is done for other populations.

In September 2010, Campus Pride released its report “2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People.” The most comprehensive national report of its kind, it surveyed nearly 6,000 students, faculty, and staff respondents across all 50 states who identified as LGBT. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of LGB respondents said they had been harassed based on their sexual identity, and an even greater percentage (39 percent) had experienced harassment based on their gender identity or expression. In addition, the findings revealed that more than a third of all transgender students, faculty, and staff respondents (43 percent), and 13 percent of LGB respondents, feared for their physical safety on campus. These percentages were higher for LGB students and LGB and transgender people of color.

The Campus Pride report notes the “chilly” environment in which more than half of all LGBT students, faculty, and staff hide their sexual identity (43 percent) or gender identity (63 percent) to avoid intimidation on campus. And when it comes to LGBT-inclusive policies, less than 13 percent of colleges and universities prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and only about 6 percent have explicit protections inclusive of transgender people. Even more troubling is the fact that 33 percent of LGB and 38 percent of transgender people surveyed said they seriously considered leaving their institution due to the challenging climate and the lack of on-campus support.

The decision to not track retention rates of out LGBT students is alarming when considering the high level of harassment experienced by LGBT populations on college campuses and the fact that LGB youth are at a higher risk for experiencing negative health effects when compared with non-LGB youth. A 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on health risk behaviors among students in grades nine through 12 documented that gay and lesbian youth had higher prevalence rates for 49 to 90 percent of all health risks; specifically, they had higher rates for seven out of 10 health risk categories: violence, suicide, tobacco use, alcohol use, other drug use, and sexual behaviors. Bisexual students had higher prevalence rates for 57 to 86 percent of all health risks measured, with higher rates for eight out of 10 health risk categories: behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries, violence, attempted suicide, tobacco use, alcohol use, other drug use, sexual behaviors, and weight management.

As we are aware from other work around retention, at-risk factors and harmful experiences can lead to a higher dropout rate among these students and can negatively affect their academic success and their well-being on campus. If we knew these statistics about any other diverse population, we would be tracking their retention. The only reason we do not know this information for the out LGBT population is that most campuses currently do not allow for an option to collect this data on college admission or post-enrollment forms.

This situation is changing, though, as some colleges are leading the way. In the last decade, a growing number of colleges and universities have been asking students to identify their gender identity and sexual orientation on admissions forms, either by adding a question to their own application or by adding a supplemental question to the Common Application. These institutions include Dartmouth College, Duke University, Elmhurst College, Elon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern Illinois University, The Ohio State University, Purdue University, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Rochester, and all two-year colleges in California and Washington. In addition, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), the most comprehensive source of information on college students, has also begun to ask questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

If it is not clear to you why you should consider asking optional LGBT identity questions, consider the following reasons:

More and more LGBT students are living openly when they apply to college and want to be able to self-identify — just as they do with their race, ethnicity, and religion. Questions that are being proposed on gender identity and sexual orientation would be optional so that LGBT students who are not living openly or are not comfortable disclosing do not have to do so.

A growing number of colleges and universities are seeking to track data related to openly LGBT students who are applying to, being admitted to, and enrolling in their institutions. The lack of questions around LGBT identity on the Common Application makes obtaining this data more difficult, which hinders colleges’ ability to address these students’ retention and success.

LGBT youth, specifically LGB youth of color and transgender youth of all races, are much more likely than other students to struggle academically and personally in college. In order to positively affect their college experience, institutions must be able to identify these students.

Some colleges and universities have scholarships for students from underrepresented groups, or specifically for LGBT students, or want to conduct special outreach to prospective LGBT students. Institutions would benefit from having an easier way to identify them.

Title IX requires institutions to protect students from discrimination based on gender identity and expression. Giving students the option to identify as transgender may help colleges formulate materials and programs to support students of all gender identities.

Not all youth will be ready to answer the question, so that is why it should be optional. There are many more students today who are out, and all of them should have the ability to indicate their identity on admissions and enrollment forms if they wish. Failing to provide questions on sexual orientation and gender identity signals that these aspects of their identities are marginal and should be kept hidden, and that institutions do not support or care about individuals who identify as LGBT.●

Shane Windmeyer is the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the leading national educational organization for LGBTQ and ally college students and campus groups. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Campus Pride is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was adapted and compiled using published articles, content, and resources from campuspride.org.