Diversity in Academe 2013

Where Have All the Queer Students Gone?

Illustration by Pui Yan Fong

June 09, 2013

I can count on one hand the number of articles that empirically explore how queer students choose colleges. More research is needed on what queer students find important when choosing where they go to college, so we can help them make informed decisions, improve their persistence through college, and help institutions provide adequate support. In the end, there may be positive benefits for the colleges as well.

(The term "queer" in this context is not a slur. More than 20 years ago, "queer theory" and grass-roots politics turned the word on its head by using it as a positive reference to "a complex mobilization of people beyond sexual identity," according to the scholar Michael Warner. Scholars have been using the term since 1990.)

As a budding researcher, I wonder: Where are the queer students going to college? Answering that question can increase the diversity of our college campuses, lead to higher levels of alumni giving, and potentially even increase the quality of all of our students.

It may be stating the obvious to say that universities must create inclusive, accepting, and diverse environments for students, not only to support them during college but to prepare them for life in a diverse society. A 2010 report published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, "Engaging Diverse Viewpoints," advocated learning environments "that enhance college students' capacities to take seriously the viewpoints of others, capacities that are essential for life, work, and effective participation in our democracy." The report focused on the university as a public good whose purpose should be to help create a diverse, informed, and responsible work force.

But the report's authors, the late Eric Dey and his colleagues, found that there are significant gaps between campuses' aspirations to help students accept diverse viewpoints and actually achieving that mission. One reason may be the lack of a diverse student population.

On religious campuses, for example, fewer students believed that taking seriously the perspectives of others should be a major focus of their institutions, compared with students on secular campuses. Campuses like Wheaton College, in Illinois, and the University of Notre Dame are notorious for their antiqueer sentiments. Unfortunately, that leaves queer students who are interested in connecting to faith through education isolated, marginalized, and oppressed on their own campuses.

Such ignorance also adds to administrations' lack of perspective. Without knowing if queer students are on our campuses, we can't know if we're doing a good job of educating them. We need to know how they navigate their queer and other identities (for example, race, ability, immigration status, class), or we may continue to make misinformed assumptions about them—such as assuming that they don't exist on our campuses.

While no data were reported for historically black colleges and universities, a perceived hostile view on those campuses toward queer students (a dearth of LGBT resources, recent reports of antigay hate crimes in the news, the "appropriate attire policy" at Morehouse College) make them an example of one institutional type that could benefit from more visibly queer students on campus. A study (forthcoming) that I conducted with Steve D. Mobley Jr., at the University of Maryland at College Park, showed that black gay men who chose to attend historically black colleges didn't initially see them as diverse, but over time realized that they were in fact extremely diverse campuses full of queer students. If students don't see these institutions as diverse, then administrators and the faculty are probably not seeing them as diverse either.

Specialized universities like HBCUs and faith-based campuses need to not only do more to recruit and retain diverse groups of students (including queer students), but also do a better job of explaining to students how they conceptualize diversity and how it is seen on their campuses. There are so many benefits.

For instance, understanding where queer students enroll may be good for business. In another forthcoming article, Jason C. Garvey, an assistant professor of higher education starting this fall at the University of Alabama, and Noah D. Drezner, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maryland at College Park, found that when students felt that campus leaders created affirming environments for them, students were likely to volunteer and help sustain alumni groups. They expressed "a desire to give back to their alma mater in meaningful ways," including making substantial financial gifts. Queer students develop their identities considerably during their college years, and Garvey and Drezner found that they have and will give back to their institutions in significant ways.

For example, while at the University of Maryland at College Park, I created and coordinated a first-year program for LGBQTA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, and ally) students called the One Project. In our second year, the program, along with the LGBT Equity Center, received a sizable donation from an alumnus of the university. The daughter of the donor noted that she wished that she had these types of services on her own campus, and that she wanted to support these programs at her father's alma mater. There is a possibility that this donation will occur annually.

Understanding how students choose their colleges may have an impact on alumni giving and may help guide the creation of new programs. Say a queer student chooses a college because of the academic rigor of one of its programs. Even if that college is one of Campus Pride's top-25 "LGBT-Friendly Colleges and Universities," the student will still need support around her identity within her field. Creating programs, alumni networks, and career services for students within particular academic areas may provide more reason for those students to give back after graduation.

Queer students can also raise a university's overall student profile. One study in 2009 found that gay men were likely to have higher GPAs than their heterosexual male counterparts (there was no difference found for lesbians, and no data collected on transgender students). In another study, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students showed significantly greater growth than heterosexual students in intellectual skills like critical thinking. Also, LGB students showed significant growth in cognitive complexity across time and were able to apply knowledge learned to a wider variety of contexts than were their heterosexual counterparts. This may be because of life experiences that require LGB students to apply knowledge in a variety of contexts to protect their identities, handle conflict, and survive and thrive.

The bottom line is that many queer students enter college with a wider variety of life experiences that may positively affect their educations—if colleges recognize their presence on campus and provide academic support and opportunities for social engagement, mentoring, and leadership development.

So far, most writing on this topic has come from queer organizations outside of academe, such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Campus Pride. That's not enough. Asking questions about prospective students' sexual orientation and gender identity on college applications is a must, for example. But that's just a start. To improve the work we do and properly educate all the students we send into the world, we need to better understand where queer students are going to college, why they are choosing particular colleges, and how we can support them once they get there.

Dian Squire is a Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant in higher education at Loyola University Chicago.