LGBTQ students have a significant presence on college campuses. In 2018, an Association of American Universities survey of over 180,000 university students found that 16.9% of students identify as non-heterosexual. While many colleges try to make their campuses welcoming to LGBTQ students, their success rate varies. If you’re a prospective college student who identifies as LGBTQ+, it’s important that you research schools to make sure they’ve created a supportive environment. In this guide, you’ll learn how to research colleges and review additional topics such as the unique challenges LGBTQ students face and the resources and legal rights available to them.
Finding an LGBTQ-Friendly College
Before you apply to a school, be sure to research the nine points below. Much of your research can begin with college websites, but if you’re strongly considering a campus, we recommend consulting your high school counselors, the college’s admissions office, and current students in addition to reviewing their college website.
When you visit a college campus, do you notice a strong visual presence of LGBTQ student events and clubs? An LGBTQ-friendly school should have fliers and notices advertising LGBTQ+ events, clubs, and activities. For your online research, look up the school’s Campus Pride Index profile. Each school has an “LGBTQ Student Life” section, which indicates whether the college regularly plans LGBTQ social activities.
LGBTQ+ Student Organizations
Campus Pride Index’s “LGBTQ Student Life” section also indicates whether the school has an LGBTQ+ student organization. The school’s website should help you find more details about these organizations. In addition to checking if such organizations exist, we recommend you check how active they are. If their social media account gets a lot of engagement and their calendar is packed with upcoming events, that’s a good indication of the campus’s overall LGBTQ-friendless.
LGBTQ+ Resource Centers
There are hundreds of LGBTQ student centers across the country, and these facilities provide valuable services for dealing with the challenges that LGBTQ students often face. These centers are most often led by full-time professionals who work directly with LGBTQ students. To see if a campus has a resource center, you can check the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professional’s LGBT Support Services Map.
Anti-Discrimination Policies and Inclusion Statements
Confirm that the college’s non-discrimination statement is inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. You should also be able to self-identify your sexual orientation and gender identity on admission applications and post-enrollment forms.
Ability to Indicate Gender Identity and Chosen Name
Ensure that the college makes it easy to indicate your gender identity and the chosen name you want to use on campus. Studies have shown that supporting chosen names is crucial to affirming gender identity and reducing depressive symptoms, especially among transgender students.
Another helpful Campus Pride Index resource is their list of colleges and universities that provide gender-inclusive housing. Gender-inclusive bathrooms is another important thing to look for while visiting a campus — a 2018 survey of 500 transgender and gender-nonconforming students found that only 45% of institutions offered such facilities in campus buildings.
Does the school offer majors such as gender studies, LGBTQ studies, or human sexuality? If not, these subjects may be available as concentrations for other majors. Even if you plan on majoring in something else, this is another factor that reflects the campus’s overall culture of acceptance.
Community Support and Safety
Violence is an issue that disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ community. Check for reports on crimes against LGBTQ students, and confirm that there are a sufficient number of security offices and blue light emergency phones on campus. Furthermore, students who don’t plan to live on campus should look for local resources that aren’t affiliated with the school. CenterLink provides a map of over 500 LGBTQ+ community centers that you can use to find such support.
Common Challenges LGBTQ Students Face
Knowing more about some of the challenges facing LGBTQ college students can help you evaluate schools based on how hard they work to address those issues. Compared to cisgender heterosexual college students, LGBTQ students are disproportionally affected by the following issues:
Harassment and Violence
According to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey, 68.7% of LGBTQ students have experienced verbal harassment (name calling and threatening language), 25.7% have experienced physical harassment (being pushed or shoved), and 11% have been physically assaulted (getting punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation.
LGBTQ students also face housing discrimination. A 2017 Urban Institute report, based on over 2,000 paired tests, found that housing providers were less likely to schedule an appointment with gay men than heterosexual men. And when providers did meet with gay men, they quoted yearly rent costs that were $272 higher on average. The report also found that transgender people were less likely to be told about available rentals than cisgender people.
Anxiety and Depression
Harassment, violence, and discrimination often leads to conditions such as anxiety and depression. A Human Rights Campaign survey, conducted from 2016 to 2017, found that 28% of LGBTQ youth (including 40% of transgender youth) often felt depressed either most or all of the past 30 days — only 12% of non-LGBTQ youth felt depressed as frequently during the same period.
Lack of Community Resources
Some LGBTQ students who come out are disowned by their families. This makes it difficult to access financial resources such as scholarships, grants, and loans, as they often require a parent’s signature. A lack of support from family and the broader community also makes it hard for LGBTQ students to deal with the other challenges described above. Many college campuses provide an LGBTQ student center to help students through these challenges.
How to Apply to College as an LGBTQ Student
Depending on the colleges you’re applying to, you may want to disclose your sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression to schools that are LGBTQ-friendly but withhold this information from those that are less so. If you’re uncomfortable documenting your status in writing because you haven’t come out to your family or for any other reason, you can consider disclosing that information regarding your application with an admissions officer over the phone or in person instead.
What to Know About Life on Campus
There are many ways that colleges can support LGBTQ students. For example, LGBTQ student centers often offer services such as:
- Peer support groups
- Safe Zone training and Allies workshops
- Mental health counseling
- Lounge areas where you can meet and socialize with other LGBTQ students
- LGBTQ books, magazines, and other media available for checkout
- Assistance with filing name change or transition-related documents
- Assistance with finding LGBTQ scholarships
- Information about attending LGBTQ events and organizations
If a school doesn’t have an LGBTQ student center on campus, you should still be able to access similar services through their general student center facilities. There may be off-campus resources with similar services as well.
There are some aspects of the college experience, such as Greek life and athletics, that have historically struggled with welcoming LGBTQ students. If you’re considering becoming involved in these areas, you should first consult with school officials and current students to get a sense of what the culture is like. You should also be aware that there are fraternities and sororities, such as Delta Lambda Phi and Gamma Rho Lambda, that were created specifically for LGBTQ students and progressive allies. LGBTQ college-bound athletes should consult additional resources like the Athletic Equality Index to see how campuses are scored based on their LGBTQ+ inclusion policies and practices.
If you run into any issues due to your sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression while attending college, be sure to report the incident to one of your school’s counselors. Some colleges even have licensed attorneys on staff that can provide you with legal advice and representation. And if you are ever concerned for your safety, you should immediately contact campus security personnel or the police. If the police in your community do not feel like a safe option, consider reaching out to your campus’s student crisis resources, which may include your school’s counseling center to reach the on-call counselor.
Know Your Rights as an LGBTQ Student
Whether or not your college is LGBTQ-friendly, you have rights that safeguard your sexual orientation and gender identity. Below are some of the federal laws that protect LGBTQ students in the U.S.:
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bans sex-based discrimination at colleges that receive federal funding. This provides LGBTQ students with equal access to admissions, housing, athletics, financial assistance, etc. If you experience a Title IX violation while attending college, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. Any college receiving federal funds can be held responsible for monetary damages if they knowingly ignored sexual harassment or discrimination, even if the act was committed by a student rather than a staff member.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, partially named after a gay man who was killed while he was a student at the University of Wyoming, expanded the definition of hate crimes to include bias against the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Depending on where the campus is located, there may also be state-level laws that protect you from discrimination. The Movement Enhancement Project’s interactive map provides an excellent state-by-state breakdown of the anti-discrimnation policies in each state.
Furthermore, students have a first amendment right to vocally support LGBTQ equality; wear clothing, hang posters, or distribute leaflets that promote LGBTQ statements; and publish articles that address LGBTQ issues.
You should be aware that dozens of colleges have requested exemptions from Title IX due to their adherence to a religious doctrine or religion-based moral code. A 2018 Movement Enhancement Project study found that 79 institutions have been granted such exemptions, meaning they can legally discriminate against LGBTQ students and still receive federal funds.
If you wish to attend one of these institutions, you should check out Safety Net — this nonprofit fosters communication between LGBTQ staff, students, and alumni at over 75 evangelical Christian colleges. You can also use Safety Net to find information on gay-straight alliances that are affiliated with your school, or they can help you start a gay-straight alliance group at your school if none currently exist.
LGBTQ Students and Online Education
There are certainly some advantages to taking classes online rather than in-person. Indeed, this might be your only option if you already have a busy schedule due to work or family commitments. And even if you have an open schedule, an online college education saves you from the time, expense, and general inconvenience of a regular commute.
But if you attend college remotely, you won’t have access to all the on-campus LGBTQ resources that many colleges provide for their students. Below, we’ll go over how you can compensate for this lack of on-campus resources and other advice for online LGBTQ students.
What should LGBTQ students look for in an online college?
Although you won’t be attending classes in person, telecommuting technology such as Zoom is often used to facilitate live lectures and face-to-face interactions in a virtual environment. So it’s important for online courses to be LGBTQ-friendly, as harassment is still quite possible in this setting.
You’ll also want to make sure that the school does not have a history of discriminating against LGBTQ people in areas such as hiring, admissions, housing, and financial aid. In general, you should look for the same things that you would when evaluating a college’s in-person experience: Did the college request an exemption from Title IX? Do they have robust anti-discrimination policies? Is there an “out list” that shows a large share of the college’s faculty are LGBTQ themselves?
What financial aid is available for online LGBTQ students?
There are many scholarships and grants available specifically for LGBTQ students, and these funds can generally be applied to online tuition and fees. The Human Rights Campaign maintains a database of scholarships, fellowships, and grants that are available to LGBTQ students. Among the most sought-after LGBTQ awards are:
- Point Foundation LGBTQ Scholarship. Twenty to 30 students receive an average of $10,000.
- Avangrid Scholarship. Six engineering students receive $5,000 each.
- Association of LGBT Journalists Leroy F. Aarons Scholarship Award. One journalism student receives up to $5,000.
How can online LGBTQ students access campus counseling and support?
Some colleges offer counseling services over the phone or via a teleconferencing app. If you’re not able to access your college’s counseling services remotely, another option is to contact The Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline, which have trained counselors available 24/7.
You could also search for an LGBTQ resource center at your town’s nearest college or university. Even if you’re an online student enrolled at another institution, their staff will likely be welcoming and help you find and utilize community resources.
How can online LGBTQ students meet one another through their school?
Check if your school offers virtual LGBTQ clubs or events for online students. The Trevor Project can also be of help here, as they offer a social networking site in addition to their 24/7 hotline that’s staffed with trained counselors.
LGBTQ Student Resources and Organizations
From educational resources to financial aid to employment opportunities, there are a variety of nationwide programs that support LGBTQ students. In addition to the groups that have already been mentioned in this guide, the following organizations also offer support:
Gay and Lesbian Advocates And Defenders (GLAAD)
Founded in 1985 by a small group of journalists and writers, GLAAD is dedicated to fighting defamatory coverage of LGBTQ people in news and entertainment. They also offer grants to LGBTQ youth through their Rising Star Program.
The LEAGUE Foundation provides financial aid to LGBTQ high school seniors who are entering their first year of post-secondary education. Since 1996, they have awarded a total of $317,500 to 144 recipients. To qualify for this scholarship, you must have a GPA of at least 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, a substantial record of community service, and acceptance to an accredited U.S. college or university.
Gamma Mu Foundation
The Gamma Mu Foundation awards scholarships and grants to LGBTQ students who live in rural areas and other underserved populations in the U.S. There are no GPA or community service requirements — you just need to have completed high school and be under 35 years old. Overall, the Gamma Mu Foundation has awarded over $2 million to LGBTQ students.
Founded in 1985, the Pride Foundation is another organization that offers scholarships and grants to LGBTQ students. With just one application, you can see whether you qualify for any of their 60+ scholarship funds — and if you live in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, or Washington, there’s a good chance that you will. And if you’re interested in a career in nonprofit management or philanthropy, you should check out the Pride Foundation’s internship program as well.
Out for Work
This is an excellent resource for when you’re wrapping up your education and getting ready to join the workforce. Whether you’re still in school or just graduated, Out for Work can assist you with finding jobs and internships.
Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN)
The world’s largest online asexual community, AVEN provides asexual students with educational materials as well as a highly active community forum.
Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER)
This youth-led organization is dedicated to improving the educational environment for trans and gender-nonconforming students. TSER offers workshops, a collaborative fellowship program (the Trans Youth Leadership Summit), and scholarship opportunities.
Advice From Experts
Josh Kinchen, M.Ed. – Director of LGBTQ+ Resources Center at George Mason University
What are the most important things incoming LGBTQ students should know about applying to college?
College can be an incredible, transformative experience for most LGBTQ students. This is especially true, if they attend a college or university that has devoted time, energy, and resources into creating a campus culture where all students, inclusive of their intersectional identities can show up and thrive as their full, authentic selves. Oftentimes it’s not Ivy League schools, highly selective private colleges, or flagship state universities that have the most robust resources for LGBTQ+ students. Using resources like the Campus Pride Index to see which schools have the most intentional focus on LGBTQ policies and practices can guide choices about college selection.
What resources do most colleges have available to LGBTQ students?
Most colleges have at least one LGBTQ+ student organization on campus, with the exception of some religiously affiliated institutions whose restrictive policies do not allow for the formation of these groups officially. Also, there is nearly always an unofficial collection of faculty and staff on campus who are supportive and affirming, regardless of the official resources on campus.
What are the most important characteristics LGBTQ students should be looking for in a college?
The presence of an officially recognized and full-time staffed LGBTQ+ Center is the most important characteristic that students should be looking for. These centers are the catalyst for most inclusive policies and practices on campus, as well as directly supporting LGBTQ students as they navigate their experience at the institution. The professionals who staff these centers can also serve as mentors and advisors for LGBTQ+ life at that institution, assisting in amplifying student voices across campus.
How should an LGBTQ student who hasn't come out to their family handle their college search and application process?
Navigating a college search and application process as an LGBTQ student who is not yet out can be a positive, productive process if students utilize certain resources. If students are able to look at the Campus Pride Index in a browser their family does not have access to, they will be able to cross-tabulate this information with other selection factors that inform their college choice. If the prospective college has an LGBTQ+ Center, students can reach out to their staff to ask questions and request information for what resources are available. LGBTQ+ Center staff are accustomed to working with students who are not yet out and will protect student identity information.
What advice would you give to LGBTQ students considering college?
Sometimes students have limited choices for college selection, based on parental support, economic restrictions, or other factors. LGBTQ+ students still have options! Students can begin their academic journey at a community college and oftentimes utilize resources at the closest university for LGBTQ+ students, especially if the four-year school has an LGBTQ center. Military service academies all have long-standing LGBTQ student groups. Students attending religious institutions can also find community off-campus at affirming faith communities or local colleges that are LGBTQ inclusive. Finding community and support is paramount to every college student’s success and even more so for LGBTQ+ students. If students have a say in their college selection, utilizing resources to find the school that not only fits their academic needs but also has a robust LGBTQ community can provide an opportunity to not only attain a degree but also thrive as a person along the way.