An Institutional Responsibility: Tracking Retention & Academic Success of Out LGBT Students

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Authors: Shane Windmeyer, Keith Humphrey and Danielle Barker

Calls for increased accountability, specifically around student graduation rates, are everywhere in higher education across the United States. Ensuring that students progress efficiently from orientation to commencement has become the focus, and rightfully the responsibility, of many campus administrators. Increasing student retention and graduation rates is challenging work, unless colleges and universities are willing to raise their admissions standards.

Many institutions that are not able to adjust the academic profile of their entering class have smartly disaggregated their retention data to see where the roadblocks exist that stop students from succeeding. In that process, it has become clear that aspects of student’s identity contribute to their success just as much as their academic preparation or study skills. But, in the process of designing complex retention interventions, institutions determined to achieve success for their students are missing key aspects of student’s identity, particularly identity based on sexual orientation. This oversight potentially makes some of the retention efforts futile.

There is no panacea that all campuses can adopt to resolve this issue. Woodard et al. correctly stated that like politics, all retention issues are local (Woodard et al., 2001). What works on one campus, is not likely to be exactly replicated on another campus. The logic is simple. As much as our campuses are the same, they are really very different from each other. Each campus has its own student body, admission requirements, academic policies, tuition and fee structures, and student services that support the graduation goal. Even institutions located across the street from each other compare like the proverbial apples and oranges.

Today’s students, regardless of the identities they bring to campus, face many challenges that can hinder their movement towards graduation. At the top of the list is academic preparation. Many colleges and universities are reporting greater numbers of students who are unable to perform adequately in key subjects like college-level math and English – hindering their ability to move forward in their academic program. Efforts like summer bridge programs, remedial coursework and supplemental instruction have been implemented at many colleges and universities to help support underprepared students.  Disproportionately, students needing this support come from historically underrepresented groups (Bowl, 2001).

Next to academic preparation one of the main challenges students face is the rising cost of college education. Over the last decade, tuition has risen over 50% at a rate of about 4.4% per year (College Tuition Compare, 2012). As cost for higher education in the United States steadily increases, students and families have to make a cost-benefit decision. What may have seemed affordable at the time of first-year enrollment is financially out of reach after annual tuition increases causing students to slow down their program of study to work more, or worse – drop out altogether. Again, students from historically underrepresented groups are disproportionately affected by these increases unless institutions make intentional efforts to maintain tuition rates that do not limit their access to higher education (Bowl, 2001).

The last half of the 20th Century saw a dramatic increase in the number of students of color admitted into institutions of higher education (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1998). In response to this increase came a change in the programs and services offered on campuses to improve safety and social climate issues. In order to better meet the needs of students of color, services such as cultural centers, scholarships for students of color, and ethnic studies programs became more commonplace (Hefner, 2002). These changes happened largely after recognizing that students of color were not graduating at the same rate as white students. With more research and better understanding of the challenges facing college students of color, admission and retention rates for this student population improved (Patton, 2006). The value of this data around the success of college students of color is hard to overstate and it is similar data that is critical for the success of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) students as well. Unfortunately, even though LGBT students  likely make up a greater percentage of students (estimate 1 in 10) than many visible minority groups, data on LGBT students remain absent.

Higher education often looks to established studies such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) for guidance in designing effective programs and services to support student success. NSSE looks at a number of background characteristics including sex, transfer status, race, and age, however, it does not include sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. The survey was updated in November 2012 to include factors surrounding financial stress that today’s student faces. Until studies that influence campus decision-making include LGBT identities as a demographic of college populations, the services needed by LGBT college students to reach graduation will not be considered or effectively implemented.

While campuses have been working for many years to increase racial diversity among students, they are now also beginning to focus recruitment efforts on LGBT students (Cegler, 2012). These recruitment efforts are important steps to increasing attendance of LGBT students at colleges and universities. However, getting students enrolled is just one part of the puzzle, the degree of campus support services and a LGBT-inclusive campus climate are also important to consider. This is made clearer by the lack of retention services for LGBT students. In contrast to the many services aimed at supporting students of color on college campuses, the services aimed at supporting LGBT students are far less established (Ritchie & Banning, 2001). In order for support services to become more prevalent and effective on campuses, additional data on the retention of LGBT students is necessary.

In September 2010, Campus Pride released its report titled “2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People.” The most comprehensive national report of its kind, the survey had nearly 6000 LGBT identified students, faculty and staff respondents in all fifty states. Nearly a quarter (23%) of these LGB respondents were harassed based on sexual identity and an even greater percentage (39%) experienced harassment based on gender identity/expression. In addition, the findings showed that more than a third of all Transgender students, faculty, and staff (43%) and 13% of LGB respondents feared for their physical safety on campus. These percentages increased greater for LGB students and for LGB and/or Transgender People of Color.  (Rankin et al., 2010)

When an LGBT student arrives at college, there is still no guarantee of a safe, welcoming environment to learn, live, and grow. The Campus Pride report notes the “chilly environment” in that more than half of all students, faculty and staff hide their sexual identity (43%) or gender identity (63%) to avoid intimidation on campus. And when it comes to LGBT-inclusive policies, less than 13% of colleges/universities prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and only about 6% have explicit protections inclusive of Transgender people (Campus Pride, 2012). Nevertheless, the number of colleges/universities with active LGBT and ally student organizations continues to grow across the country. Campus Pride estimates that nearly 55% of colleges have a Gay Straight Alliance and, or LGBT group (Campus Pride, 2011). Campus Pride research also suggests that on these campuses the responsibility for implementation of programs and practices for a safe, welcoming learning environment falls on the backs of these out LGBT students and campus groups. Only 7% of campuses have an institutional support for LGBT populations on campus. Institutional support is defined as a part-time (50% or more) or full-time staff position whose job description includes LGBT issues or concerns.  Even more troubling, one-third LGB (33%) and Transgender (38%) of those surveyed in the Campus Pride report seriously considered leaving their institution due to the challenging climate and lack of support on campus.

The decision to not track retention rates of out LGBT students is alarming when considering the high level of harassment affecting LGBT campus populations, and the fact that LGB youth are at higher risk than non-LGB youth.  The Center for Disease Control report on health risk behaviors among students in grades 9–12 documented that Gay and Lesbian youth had higher prevalence rates for 49% to 90% of all health risks, specifically higher rates for 7 of 10 health risk categories including: violence, suicide, tobacco use, alcohol use, other drug use, sexual behaviors (Kann et al., 2011). Bisexual students had higher prevalence rates for 57% to 86% of all health risks measured and had higher rates for 8 of 10 health risk categories which include behaviors that contribute to: unintentional injuries, violence, attempted suicide, tobacco use, alcohol use, other drug use, sexual behaviors, and weight management (Kann et al., 2011).

As we are aware from other retention work (Terenzini & Pascarella, 1980; Terenzini, 1987; and Kuh et al., 2005), at-risk factors and harmful experiences can lead to a higher dropout rate and negatively impact their academic success and/or other health and well-being issues on campus. The only reason we do not know this about out LGBT populations is because almost all campuses currently do not allow for an option to collect this data on college admission forms or post-enrollment, continuing student self-reported data. Only two campuses Elmhurst College and University of Iowa ask specific LGBT identity questions on their college admission form. Currently there is not any other known standard LGBT identity-based practice being used for tracking retention and matriculation of LGBT students at other colleges.

Colleges and universities are responsible for the education and safety of all students, including their LGBT students. Colleges and universities need to know and count their out LGBT students to provide necessary services and/or maintain proper safety and campus climate. Demographic questions asking students about their sexual orientation and gender identity give administrators the data they need to properly implement LGBT-inclusive policies and practices.  Doing so will not be easy as different from other identity groups, LGBT student identity is fluid and often evolves during the college years.  But, if our institutions of higher learning can achieve complex tasks like landing a spacecraft on Mars, we can certainly figure out this challenge.

In order to best serve the needs of out LGBT college students, it is imperative that colleges and universities give these students the option to self-identify at the point of college admission or other enrollment activity. This way the campus can take responsibility for the LGBT student experience, their academic retention, safety, and success from the beginning like we do other campus populations.

Colleges and universities have nothing to lose by asking this optional sexual identity question. Instead, these colleges have everything to gain by being more aware and accountable to the out LGBT student population. Simply asking the question sends a strong message of inclusion and visibility. What we include and what we do not include on our forms sends signals to our students on what is accepted, and, moreover, what is important to the campus. Accurately collected data on LGBT campus population serves the needs of the out LGBT student but also has a greater impact, sending a message of inclusion and diversity to the entire campus community. Such questions determine incoming students’ needs, track retention rates, potential interest in campus programs, and offer support resources that better the academic experience.

Institutions of higher education should be held responsible for the retention and academic success of every student. There is no reason today why colleges and universities should not be held accountable for the campus climate as well as want to ensure the academic success and retention of LGBT students. We track retention for other student populations. Now is the time to do so for LGBT students.



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