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Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students’ Success in College

Education, LGBT Youth August 7th, 2009
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~ By Luca Maurer

For lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students, one ending – successfully completing high school – can bring with it new beginnings:

  • the possibility and promise of pursuing higher education,
  • visiting and evaluating colleges to find a good fit,
  • and adjusting to the college environment, expectations, and culture.

These students may also find it refreshing to trade some of the old obstacles and challenges they experienced as sexual minority middle and high school students, for a new slate filled with anticipation and possibilities.

Just what will happen when these students tackle college? How will their previous experiences influence their academic performance and social integration? In what ways might they be similar to, or different from their heterosexual peers? Is a student’s sexual orientation a predictor of their college success?

The article, “Sexual Orientation and Outcomes in College”, in Economics of Education Review, is the first study of gay, lesbian, and bisexual college student achievement. This research design utilizes the Harvard College Alcohol Study (CAS) – the only large, nationally representative source of data on college students that asks directly about same-sex sexual behavior – to explore ways a student’s sexual orientation may impact college outcomes. Measures of college success included academic achievement, employment while in school, social capital/connectedness, time use patterns, and attitudes about the importance of participating in various extracurricular activities.

The findings of the study are interesting and highlight key, but complicated, links between sexual orientation and college outcomes.

For male students:

  • gay men had higher college grade point averages and perceived their academic work as more important than similar heterosexual male students;
  • gay and bisexual men were more likely than their heterosexual peers to report the presence of a faculty member or administrator with whom they could discuss a problem;
  • as compared to heterosexual students, gay and bisexual men placed more importance on participating in student organizations, volunteer activities, the arts, and politics (and spent a considerable 40-50% more time participating in student organizations or volunteering!). One notable exception to this was in the area of athletics, an area markedly not as highly valued by these students. This raises additional questions about the experiences of LGB student athletes and their unique needs and assets, as well as those LGB students who may summarily dismiss participation in sports that could yield important benefits such as healthy habits and leadership skills for life.

For female students:

  • bisexual women were less satisfied with the education they were receiving, spent less time studying, and perceived their academic work as less important than similar heterosexual female students;
  • like their gay male counterparts, lesbian and bisexual women also placed more importance on participation in the arts and politics and demonstrated above-average levels of connectedness and activism as compared to their heterosexual peers.

The study showed that in general, gay men have generally positive college outcomes; however the results were decidedly more mixed for bisexual and lesbian students – they are having a qualitatively different college experience than gay men. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students alike found participation in student organizations, the arts, and politics more important than their heterosexual peers. Further study might yield insights into ways friendship networks (and perhaps community itself) among LGB students are found, forged, and formed in college.

Another note when considering this study – its unique research design focused on identifying and comparing outcomes between students of different sexual orientations, yet that same design by its very nature did not yield any information about the outcomes of transgender students, as compared to their heterosexual or conventionally gendered peers. Adequately serving the needs of transgender youth (in all settings) is an emerging field. Currently, since transgender youth are usually served together in programs and services that address the needs of LGB youth, the research poses additional questions about the experiences of transgender students, and how such services might be tailored for improved outcomes. This is an area for further study.

The research provides new insight into the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, and how their experiences in and out of the classroom may shape their college outcomes. It may also have other implications as well, including:

  • The continuing need for campus-based LGBT Centers, as a well as faculty and staff that are aware of and adept at addressing the unique needs of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students;
  • Specially tailored support services and programs to address fatigue and burn-out in LGB student leaders;
  • A new look at strategies and interventions to better support bisexual students;
  • Investigation into ways heterosexual students might be supported in additional ways to foster academic success, social connectedness, and mentoring relationships.

It also provides important insight for adults who care about LGB youth, as they encourage and prepare them for college life. And for young people who are embarking upon college (as well as for their families, teachers, and all who care about them), it can help clarify or put to rest several fears:

  • LGB students can succeed in educational environments, especially when they are nurtured by mentors
  • college “success” can have multiple meanings – leadership in student organizations, the arts, or politics on one’s resume can be as compelling to potential employers as grade point averages

One thing is clear – the individuality of each unique youth is of paramount importance and should be at the center of discussions about college outcomes.

Considering college, choosing a college that is a good fit, and the transition to college can present unique challenges and opportunities to LGBT students already. This study suggests even more challenges, joys, and opportunities await students upon their return or arrival to campuses this month.

Article citation: Carpenter, C. S. (2009). Sexual orientation and outcomes in college. Economics of Education Review doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2007.10.010

Lis Maurer is the coordinator of the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services at Ithaca College, and is on the Editorial Board of The Prevention Researcher.

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