Equity & Diversity

Colleges Increasingly Look To Attract Gay, Lesbian Applicants

By Sean Cavanagh — June 19, 2002 5 min read
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In personal essays and interviews, some of them describe high school years rife with rejection, isolation, and anonymity. But colleges and universities are promising to welcome them.

Gay and lesbian high school students have become an increasingly coveted pool of applicants for liberal-arts schools and larger universities alike, counselors and admissions officials say.

While their population remains largely uncounted, attracting those teenagers has become an increasingly obvious goal for many colleges, admissions officials say, and the recruitment efforts have grown more direct.

Last month, a college fair specifically for gay and lesbian students in Boston—believed to be the first of its kind in the nation—had been expected to draw five to 10 colleges and universities.

More than 40 schools showed up, the organizers said. The roster included liberal- arts schools like Grinnell College in Iowa, Ivy League standard-bearers like Harvard and Brown, and state universities and technical institutes. The May 18 event was part of a weekend Gay-Straight Youth Pride Celebration.

“In the next year or two, I think you’ll see more schools taking an active role in recruiting gay and lesbian students,” said Chris Ferguson, a program director with the Massachusetts Department of Health, who helped organize the event. “There haven’t been lot of forums that bring gay and lesbian students together.”

Some of the schools that showed up in Boston, Mr. Ferguson gathered from discussions with attendees, did so after getting a strong nudge from gay and lesbian advocates on their campus.

Colleges and universities seek out homosexual students partly for the same reasons they want students from racial and ethnic minorities, admissions officials say: as part of their sweeping goal of increasing diversity on campus.

Targeting gay students is one thing; finding high school juniors and seniors who might otherwise prefer to remain discreet about their sexual orientation is something else.

“The problem is, how do you identify these students and market to them?” said Brad J. Blankenship, an admissions counselor at American University in Washington. “At the same time, we hope to send a signal to them that we’re gay- friendly.”

Advocacy organizations today encourage students to quiz colleges about the services and programs they offer for gay and lesbian students. Colleges have responded: Many of them tout such benefits openly, during talks with students touring campus, and in interviews and literature, admissions officers say.

In some cases, gay and lesbian applicants reveal their sexuality in applying to colleges, in personal essays or descriptions of their high school activities. Still, many colleges and universities try to make their pitches with subtlety.

“You don’t want to go out and confront young people too directly, if they are still coming to terms with their sexuality,” said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in Washington. “It’s a tough call when you’re dealing with high school teenagers.”

So far, admissions officers say, colleges have refrained from asking students about their sexual orientation on applications, a step that might raise legal questions.

More Scrutiny

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, published a guide last year intended to help gay high school students choose a college. The guide also aims to assist “transgender” students, a term that includes both transsexuals and, the network says, those who choose not to identify with what they see as society’s stereotypical definitions of gender roles and behaviors.

The brochure suggests applicants ask colleges about the number of openly gay and lesbian students on campus and about courses in gay and lesbian studies, among other factors. (“Finding the Right Campus,” this issue.) The New York City-based advocacy organization published a similar guide to help high school counselors assist gay students.

Gay students are giving their college options increasing scrutiny. Philip Stewart, who is gay and grew up in a rural area about 30 minutes outside Pittsburgh, looked at schools on their Internet sites before narrowing his search to American University in Washington, New York University, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

At all three, Mr. Stewart found what he saw as a refreshing sense of big-city tolerance. He eventually committed to American University, after talking with friends who went there.

“With every minority, it’s nice to go someplace that promotes equality,” said Mr. Stewart, now 19, who has just finished his freshman year. “I wanted someplace with a more liberal outlook.”

American University gives prospective gay and lesbian students tips about what they should look for in a college, Mr. Blankenship said, and then explains how it offers those features.

Staff members tell potential students about the services and social activities available to gay and lesbian students. The employees can provide more specific information over the phone and by e-mail, with the promise of confidentiality, Mr. Blankenship added.

But some admissions officials say parents of gay and lesbian students are often surprisingly direct.

“A mother or father will come up and say, ‘My son is openly gay. What services do you have to offer?’” said Jerry W. Pope, an associate dean of admissions at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. “A couple years ago, that was almost unheard of.”

Others say college and university efforts have been pushed along by societal changes. Many more high school students these days are openly discussing their gay sexual orientation than was the case a few years ago, when most waited until college, Mr. Blankenship said. As a result, colleges must be ready to address such students’ needs sooner.

Two years ago, about 1,000 high schools nationwide had established organizations to support their gay students, said Kevin Jennings, the executive director of GLSEN, whose organization works with those schools. By 2002, he said, that number had doubled to about 2,000.

Neither college-admissions officials nor gay-rights advocates could point to any evidence that gay or lesbian students were more desirable for colleges than other students from an academic standpoint. And none of those interviewed said such students would boost their chances for admission simply by virtue of their sexual orientation.

But some of them suggested that gay and lesbian students offered colleges another benefit: an uncommon maturity, from having coped with life outside the accepted norm during high school.

“You’ve got students who, in the face of enormous adversity, have achieved,” said Mr. Jennings, a former high school teacher. “Colleges want the best of any group. It’s the job of the university to attract a diverse and outstanding student body.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Colleges Increasingly Look To Attract Gay, Lesbian Applicants

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