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Colleges See Gay Students as Growth Market

Sep 02, 2014

Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian in Austin, Texas, Josh Bergeleen says he “didn’t know that gay was a thing.”

That changed when he went off to college at Emory University in Atlanta, and he came out at 18, shortly after beginning his freshman year. Four years later, Bergeleen credits Emory’s welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students as a key factor not only in his discovering his own identity, but in helping him stay on track to graduate from the business school this year.

"I wouldn't have been able to continue if not for their support," Bergeleen says. At one particularly rough point after coming out, Bergeleen stopped talking to his own family and says Emory's LGBT student support office "made me feel comfortable with myself."

lgbt-josh-bergeleenStudent Josh Bergeleen 

Experiences like that are important advertisements for schools that are increasingly competing to attract LGBT students. Their efforts are more than a response to the legal and cultural sea change in favor of LGBT rights. They're good business. Nationally, total college enrollment is stagnant and has been declining at some institutions. Meanwhile, the median age that lesbian, gay and bisexual adults say they came out is 20, exactly when they’re college age, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center. And with 92 percent of those polled saying that society has gotten more accepting of them in the last decade, LGBT students are becoming more visible at the same time overall enrollment is flattening out.

“It’s a competitive advantage,” says Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, one of the nation’s first on-campus support centers for LGBT students. “If you want to attract the best and brightest students, you don’t want competitors to get a leg up.”

A growing number of campuses are launching programs to attract and hold onto LGBT students, including college fairs aimed at LGBT applicants, LGBT student-support offices, special graduation ceremonies, and housing and healthcare for transgender students. Colleges and universities are also putting more resources into LGBT student centers, including by hiring full-time employees to direct them.

At Kennesaw State University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Questioning Student Retention Services Office and Resource Center, director Jessica Duvall says she has seen the annual number of visits rise from 158 in 2012, when she was hired, to 494 last year. She has launched programs such as an annual gay history exhibit and a “rainbow graduation ceremony.”

“What is happening now [with LGBT students] is what happened with minorities,” says Jerome Ratchford, vice president for student success at Kennesaw, who was hired 26 years ago to help recruit black students.

Ratchford says a “critical mass of gay students came on campus and organized” in recent years. Administrators determined that, “if they met the needs of these students, the students [would] have a higher probability of being successful.” That would “change the culture” of the school, and lead to more LGBT students choosing it, he says.

During his time at Emory, Bergeleen led gay student groups on campus and worked in the admissions office. Both activities led him to discover “a great demand” among LGBT students for assurances that the colleges and universities they are considering attending will support their identities, he said.

There are about 200 LGBT student centers nationwide, according to Ronni Sanlo, a founding chair of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals. While there’s no data on the year-over-year increase, Sanlo says that they have even started popping up in the 29 states whose discrimination laws don’t mention sexual orientation and gender identity. Sanlo spoke in Kentucky in the spring, for example, and discovered three new centers on campuses there.

One tool that has helped LGBT students find supportive schools is the Campus Pride Index. The index rates campuses on a scale of one to five stars based on a voluntary survey of more than 50 questions ranging from, “Does your campus offer health insurance coverage to employees’ same-sex partners?” to “Does your campus have a LGBT alumni group?”

More than 400 campuses have now taken the survey, an uptick of 35 percent in the last two years, says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, the organization that oversees the index.

“Campuses today want to be called gay friendly,” Windmeyer says. “They see they’re going to lose students if they’re not, [and] realize the pool of non-LGBT students is dwindling.”

At the same time, Windmeyer says one of the obstacles in continuing to attract and, especially, retain LGBT students is the delicate issue of knowing who they are. It was only three years ago that Elmhurst College in Illinois became the first American college or university to ask students about their sexual orientation on its admissions application. Since then, only a handful of other schools have followed suit.

“Recruitment starts by learning about a population and what their interests are,” says Gary Rold, dean of admissions at Elmhurst. Until asking prospective students, Rold says, “We didn’t know much about this population.”

Among the things Elmhurst has learned about its LGBT population is that they are more likely than the rest of the student body to be nonwhite and the first in their families to go to college. About half of the college’s incoming students who identify as LGBT are also black or Hispanic, compared with about a third of the general student population. Elmhurst has acted on this knowledge by providing additional resources to aid these new students in their transition to college and highlighting clubs, financial aid and other services aimed at LGBT students on its website.

Experiences like Rold’s at Elmhurst are why Windmeyer says that campuses will best serve LGBT students when they understand where they're coming from and what they need to flourish on campus. A first step in this direction would be to ask in applications about students' sexual and gender orientations, he says. But there is resistance to that idea, for reasons ranging from religious believes to concerns about privacy.

“You can’t do it in a bubble without having a way to track who they are,” Windmeyer says.

Bergeleen, for one, is confident that experiences like his will become more common.

"As there is more awareness of LGBT [people] in the larger community," he says, "more and more kids are going to want to know what resources and information are available. Schools will catch up."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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