Higher Education

Colleges see gay students as a new market

Josh Bergeleen was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home in Austin, Texas, where, growing up, he “didn’t know that gay was a thing.”

He came out at 18, shortly after becoming an undergraduate at Emory University.

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 going on to graduate from the business school this year.

Josh Bergeleen credits his college with helping him discover his identity. Many colleges are competing to recruit gay students.

Josh Bergeleen credits his college with helping him discover his identity. Many colleges are competing to recruit gay students.

Universities are, in fact, welcoming the growing number of arriving students who feel comfortable being out as gay or transgender. But to them, it’s not just a response to a fast-moving social movement. It’s a business decision.

“It comes down to the bottom line,” said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, one of the nation’s early on-campus support centers for LGBT students.

“It’s a competitive advantage,” Beemyn said. “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.

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.

The median age that lesbian, gay and bisexual adults say they came out is 20, exactly when they’re college age, according to a 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.

To recruit and keep them, many campuses are opening LGBT student centers, or dedicating full-time staff to those they already had.

There are about 400 such centers nationwide, said Ronni Sanlo, a founding chair of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, and while there’s no data on the year-over-year increase, Sanlo said 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.

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 said 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,” said Jerome Ratchford, vice president for student success at Kennesaw, who was hired 26 years ago to help recruit black students.

Ratchford said 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 said.

One tool that has helped LGBT students choose 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, said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, the organization that oversees the index. Campus Pride also holds college fairs, and plans to host its first online college fair next year.

“Campuses today want to be called gay friendly,” Windmeyer said. “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 said 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 institution to ask students about their sexual orientation on its admissions application. Since then, only a handful of other schools have followed suit. The University of Iowa and MIT include an optional question about sexual orientation, and Duke has now said it will invite students to disclose their sexual orientation in an application essay if they choose.

“Recruitment starts by learning about a population and what their interests are,” said Gary Rold, dean of admissions at Elmhurst. Before asking the question, Rold said, “We didn’t know much about this population.”

One thing Elmhurst has learned is that 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. This means the LGBT students at his campus are more likely to be first-generation college students, Rold said — an important factor when it comes to helping them to stay in school.

Experiences like Rold’s at Elmhurst are why campuses can’t just aim for a five-star rating in his college guide, said Windmeyer. They also have to learn who their gay and lesbian students are, and what they need, though he also said it was unlikely that questions about sexual identity will be added to the Common Application form because of sensitivity from, among others, religious colleges. The Common Application already turned down the idea once, in 2011.

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

Meanwhile, more schools seem to be following the approach at Elmhurst, which Rold described as, “not an advertising campaign, and not a political agenda… [Instead,] we’re more conscious of sending out a subtle welcome mat.”

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