Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Right Fit: LGBT Students and College

If you have been around for the last couple of decades (which, let's face it, I have...I have the gray hair, and less hair, for that matter, to prove it) and you work with adolescents, either in high-school or in college, you have noticed that the average age that LGBT students come-out has become younger and younger.  Back in my day (and now I sound like my father) the average age of coming out was somewhere in the late teens/early 20's.  Now, it is 16.  This means that students are beginning to come to terms with their sexual orientation while in high-school, before they go to college.  What impact does this have on the college search and application process?

In last week's Washington Post college blog, College Inc., an article was written about how well Washington D.C. metro area colleges fared on the Campus Climate Index, a rating system devised and administrated by Campus Pride in order to rank how well a college or university incorporates and accepts LGBT students.  The organization examines schools for such areas as campus policy, campus housing, academic inclusion, institutional support, student life, safety, health (physical and behavioral), and recruitment as it pertains to LGBT issues and, based on these results, issues a ranking.  You can then search their database based on geographical location, size of the school, private, public, etc. to begin to a develop a list of LGBT-friendly schools.  There are other lists out there, as well, such as this one published by The Daily Beast/Newsweek or by clicking on the LGBT-friendly tab of the Princeton Review College Rankings page.  All of these resources will help to generate ideas about LGBT friendly schools.

However, there are some limitations with these websites and lists.  These lists do not tend to cover every university around the country.  For example, my undergraduate alma mater is not ranked at all on the Campus Climate Index, and yet I would say that it was a fairly gay-friendly institution, even when I was there oh-those-many-years ago.  Further, some of this ranking data comes from self-reporting, which is not necessarily reliable, as you will remember from your research courses in your school-counseling graduate programs.  Organizations such as the Princeton Review have stated on record that, "We talk to whom we consider college experts: current college students.”  The concern here is that these surveys are given to all college students, and therefore the perceptions of straight, heterosexual students with regards to a university's LGBT climate and policies could conceivably be very different from the LGBT members themselves, thus skewing the data.

The need is certainly there, though, for LGBT students and their families to find post-secondary institutions that they feel will be supportive and safe.  The death of the Rutgers' student, Tyler Clementi, as well as the numerous gay-suicides resulting from bullying have made both LGBT teens and their families concerned about what environment they are considering for the next four-to-six years of their lives.  As a result, traffic at websites like Campus Climate "have almost doubled from 6,850 a month in 2007, when the Web site started, to 13,580 a month in 2010" as this New York Times blog entry discusses.  However, these websites and searchable databases are only a tool in aiding these students.  What if a school they are looking at is not in one of these lists?  What if the family wants more information?  What specifically should LGBT students be doing to find a college that is both a right-fit for them in terms of size, location, choice of major, and cost as well as being a warm and welcoming place for their sexual and/or gender identity?  Here are some tips for you to share with your LGBT students beginning the college search process:
  • Start the search with the same criteria as every other student.  I always advise my students to sit down with their families and have the hard discussions about what college criteria they are looking for with regards to location (close to home or far away? Urban campus or more rural?), size (large or small?), your academic statistics (GPA, course-selections, and test-scores will influence your choices), choice of majors, and any financial constraints that could effect the search.  As this young blogger talks about, there is no point in examining how LGBT friendly a college campus is if they do not have the major you are looking for, are out of your financial means, or are in a location you would never consider.
  • Search the school's website.  Once you've chosen some colleges to consider based on the criteria above, start to mine for information on the website.  Things to look for:  Does the school have a student LGBT club or organization of some kind?  If so, score one for the school.  In their student and faculty policies, is sexual-orientation and/or gender-identity listed in anti-discrimination regulations as protected? If so, score another one for the school.  Are there identified LGBT or LGBT friendly faculty that you can contact?  Is there an administrative position identified as a touch-point for LGBT students?  If not, at least some staff member designated to working with diversity?  Does the school have an LGBT studies (sometimes called queer studies) major, minor, or concentration?  Look at the events calendar for the school--are there LGBT themed events, movies, or speakers presented throughout the year?  If there are reading lists, are there LGBT-themed books or authors?  The more mentions of LGBT issues you can find online and the more groups and programming that is available to LGBT students at that school, the more likely it is that the school has taken sincere steps to becoming LGBT friendly.
  • Examine other online information.  Go to the Campus Climate website and search to see if the college or university you are examining is in there, and peruse the lists at the Princeton Review or The Daily Beast/Newsweek.  However, these lists will not cover all colleges and universities, and they are not the only source of information students and families should consider.  Additionally, you can search the internet for any student blogs or reviews that might give you some perspectives as to how LGBT friendly a campus may be.  Again, though, you must consider the source of the information when deciding how much weight to give it.  Finally, search the school newspaper as well as community newspapers for any coverage of LGBT issues regarding that college--you may find both positive and negative press.
  • Visit the campus and ask questions of admissions staff, faculty, and students.  Once you have gathered information from online sources, it's time to start talking to people on campus.  Set up a tour with the admissions office and do not be afraid to ask questions about LGBT policies, staffing, and student groups.  If the school is truly LGBT friendly, they will have no problems answering your questions.  Additionally, you may have identified faculty members through your web search, or you can ask the admissions office for a name or two.  While you are on campus, you could arrange to meet with this professor to have a conversation.  Further, you could make contact with a member of the student LGBT organization and speak with them to get the student perspective.  Ask questions about policies, LGBT visibility, campus tolerance, and also campus safety.  Again, if people are not willing to address your inquiries and concerns, that will probably tell you quite a bit about the climate on that campus.  As with any college decision, visiting the campus is crucial--how you feel when you set foot onto the grounds of the school and during your conversations with the faculty, staff, and students will be one of the best pieces of information you get from all of your searching.
Once you have selected schools and feel comfortable with their LGBT friendliness, there are some additional considerations for the LGBT student:
  • Do I reveal my LGBT status in my application and/or essay?  There is no right or wrong answer, as this post from Princeton Review discusses.  For many schools who are looking to add diversity, if could very well help, but only if you frame it in such a way, perhaps through the essay, that shows how your sexual orientation or gender identity has impacted you and helped you to grow as a student and as a person.  Further, you must also consider how far along in the "coming-out" process you are.  Different students will have varying levels of comfort with sharing this personal information--you must make the best decision for you.
  • Are there specific scholarships for LGBT students?  Of course, and more seem to pop up every year.  As stated before, colleges are often looking to add diversity to their campus, and LGBT students are part of that.  If your school or school district is LGBT friendly, a good place to start might be with your school counselor or career center specialist.  There are also many places to gather information about LGBT scholarships online, such as this extensive list at FinAid.Org
The college process is filled with anxiety, excitement, and curiosity for all students and families, but with LGBT students possibly even more so.  Encourage these students to advocate for themselves and ask as many questions as they need of the schools to gather the appropriate information to make an informed decision that leaves them feeling safe, secure, and able to thrive in the college environment.


No comments:

Post a Comment