College Guide for LGBTQ+ Students
Finding the right school is important for every prospective student, but those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or queer and other sexual identities (LGBTQ+) face further challenges when choosing a college. In addition to obstacles that all students face, like researching different majors and obtaining financial aid, students who are LGBTQ+ benefit from finding a school with a community that is accepting of their identity and supportive of their unique needs.
Whether you need help navigating the college application process from start to finish or are looking for solutions and resources to a specific problem, this guide will provide valuable information that prospective LGBTQ+ students need to know about researching, applying to, and attending college.
Who Makes Up the LGBTQ+ Community?
The acronym LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), and others. While the terms “gay” and “lesbian” have been used to describe same-sex attraction for decades, other terms were introduced to the vernacular more recently. The acronym we see now changed to reflect that; people began using “LGBT” in the late 1980s to be more inclusive of other identities in the community. The Q was added to create “LGBTQ,” meant to be inclusive of individuals who are questioning their identity or find that queer is a more fitting label.
LGBTQ is not a static term, nor is it used or spelled consistently. Various iterations are often used today as people explore and define new identities. Other common variants include “LGBT+” and “LGBTQIA” in an effort to be all-encompassing. Using one term over another typically comes down to personal preference, not exclusion of certain groups.
For the purposes of this guide, we will use the five-letter acronym with the plus symbol or “LGBTQ+.” This is intended to encompass all of the diverse identities and orientations in the LGBTQ+ community.
Glossary of Terms
Because the variety of identities and terminology is so vast, we’ll take a moment to go over some of the most common terms used by and about the LGBTQ+ community.
An ally is a person who stands with or advocates for individuals and groups other than their own. Someone who is not part of the LGBTQ+ community but supports individuals who are LGBTQ+ and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and organizations is considered an ally. They work to fight discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and use their privilege to help both individuals and the community at large.
Someone who does not experience sexual or romantic attraction. Each person who is asexual experiences relationships and sexual desire differently. Someone who is asexual may still choose to have and enjoy sex, while others may be sex repulsed. Often used as an umbrella term to describe a spectrum of people and identities, including demisexuality or gray sexuality, who experience no or little sexual attraction.
Someone who is emotionally, romantically, or physically attracted to the same and different genders. People who are bisexual do not need to have romantic experience with any gender they are attracted to; experience does not define orientation. They also do not have to feel equal levels of attraction to different genders. Often used as an umbrella term to describe people who experience attraction to two or more genders.
The opposite of transgender, cisgender refers to someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth. The Latin prefix cis- means “on this side of” and people who are cisgender remain on the same side of the gender they were initially identified as at birth; cisgender is often shortened to “cis” in everyday use. It is occasionally used to describe someone who performs their assigned gender according to traditional social norms.
Used as an umbrella term to describe a person who is emotionally, romantically, or physically attracted to people of the same gender. More specifically, a man who is emotionally, romantically, or physically attracted to other men. Men who have dated women, but not men, might still identify as gay. Attraction defines orientation, not experience.
Someone’s personal, internal sense of their gender. Everyone, including people who are cisgender, has a gender identity. They may be male, female, both, neither, other gender(s), or have no gender.
Describes someone who is born with genetics, hormones, anatomy, or genitalia that are neither typically male or female. Sometimes parents and medical professionals will alter infants and children, often with surgery or hormones, to create characteristics that align with binary ideas of an assigned gender.
A woman who is emotionally, romantically, or physically attracted to other women. This refers to orientation, not experience. A woman who has never dated a woman, but is attracted to women, might still identify as a lesbian.
Someone who is emotionally, romantically, or physically attracted to all genders and biological sexes or who is attracted to others regardless of gender and biological sex. Sometimes called “omnisexual.” Experience does not define orientation; someone who is pansexual does not need any sexual experience to identify as pansexual. Considered to be a part of the bisexual community.
Someone who is emotionally, romantically, or physically attracted to multiple, but not all, genders. To identify as polysexual, someone does not need to have any sexual experience; they simply must feel attraction to multiple genders. Considered to be part of the bisexual community.
An umbrella term used to describe all sexual orientations and gender identities who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender. A sometimes-divisive term among those in the LGBTQ+ community because of its historical use as a slur against people who are LGBTQ+. It has been reclaimed by some people in the LGBTQ+ community as a positive self-identifier because it is deliberately ambiguous and not confined to traditional labels. Only refer to people as queer if they explicitly and publicly identify as queer; it is not a universally accepted term within the LGBTQ+ community and is still offensive to some people.
Refers to someone who is exploring and discovering their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression. Questioning is an ongoing process and people may change the way they identify or find that a different label or identity is more fitting for them than their current one.
Someone’s emotional, romantic, or physical attraction toward other people. Experience and sexual activity do not define someone’s sexual orientation; their attraction to others, whatever it may be, does.
Refers to someone who does not identify with their gender assigned at birth. Transgender is often commonly referred to as “trans.” Someone who is transgender may or may not decide to transition from their gender assigned at birth, medically, surgically, or otherwise. Their gender presentation may not align with their gender. Someone who is transgender does not need to transition or present as their gender to be transgender.
LGBTQ+ Statistics: Representation and Inclusivity in Higher Education
An increasing number of Americans have become more accepting of people who identify as LGBTQ+. According to Pew Research, in 2020, 72% of Americans believed that society should accept people who are LGBTQ+, which is up 21% from 2002. But despite these changing attitudes, many people and organizations continue to reject and stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community.
LGBTQ+ students should not have to compromise their personal safety, physical and mental health, or their happiness to attend college.
In 2018, the American College Health Association did a survey of more than 26,000 college students and found that 18% of students identify as asexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual, queer, questioning, or same gender loving. The true percentage of students who identify as LGBTQ+ may be even larger, as some students may not feel comfortable or safe disclosing their identity.
This statistic includes students at a variety of schools, from two-year colleges to research institutes. A significant number of students identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community at all levels of education, so many colleges offer services to uplift and support them regardless of age or how advanced they are in their studies. Common resources for students who are LGBTQ+ include:
- LGBTQ+ resource centers
- Antidiscrimination policies
- Gender or LGBTQ+ studies majors or minors
Members of the LGBTQ+ community can be more vulnerable to the difficulties of college, both in and outside of the classroom, than the majority of the student population. Researching different campuses that offer support services specifically for students who identify as LGBTQ+ can help prospective undergraduates lead happy, healthy, and successful college careers.
Choosing the Right School: Tips for LGBTQ+ Students
When prospective students begin looking for the right college, some considerations are universal:
- What major students want to pursue
- Available extracurricular activities and clubs
- Cost of tuition and housing in the area
- Options for online learning vs. on-campus learning
But there’s more to college than academics alone, and LGBTQ+ students must consider everything from university diversity and inclusion policies to staying safe at school. Students who identify as LGBTQ+ should look at the following factors when considering different colleges:
Inclusion or Diversity Initiatives
An increasing number of campuses are advancing diversity initiatives to help students who are part of minority populations succeed at school. Many schools are using more inclusive language in student codes of conduct, mission statements, and other university policies to protect and uplift minority students.
Universities that don’t explicitly welcome and uplift minority groups may not be the best choice for prospective members of the LGBTQ+ community, as those policies offer specific securities.
In addition to diversity policies, many universities have protections in place for minority students to shield them from harassment, bullying, and discrimination. Harassment and homophobic comments may occur anywhere: on campus, off campus, or even in an online class. The National LGBTQ+ Task Force found that universities that had taken measures to address discrimination and harassment had found success in protecting students who are LGBTQ+.
To ensure personal safety at school, members of the LGBTQ+ community should check to see if their college has protections in place and a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, harassment, and bullying.
More and more campuses have their own organizations and groups for students who identify as LGBTQ+. Pride centers, LGBTQ+-centered clubs, or even off-campus groups can all provide vital support, information, and services for students. Students are more likely to be successful at college if they have a safe space where they can get help, answers to their questions, and feel included.
Out Students, Staff, and Faculty
Universities that have out students, staff, and faculty (students, staff, and faculty who have self-disclosed their gender identity and/or their sexual orientation) promote an inclusive, safe, and positive environment for prospective and current students who identify as LGBTQ+.
Out professors and instructors can serve as mentors to new students, both academically and as a member of the community. Some universities even have an out list, so students can find and connect with faculty members who are LGBTQ+. Other out students can help new students get involved with LGBTQ+-friendly or focused groups and events on campus, offer support and comfort via email or online chat, or give them the courage to be out at school too.
Without the support of other students and faculty, prospective students may experience isolation and even loss of their identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
LGBTQ+-Friendly Bathrooms and Housing
Gender-neutral bathrooms and housing can greatly improve the college experience for on-campus students who identify as LGBTQ+, especially prospective students who are transgender. Look online at a university’s housing options to find inclusive or LGBTQ+-only housing. Campus maps or online directories may show locations of gender-neutral bathrooms. Don’t be afraid to call the university for more specific information.
Check out Campus Pride’s list to find universities that provide gender-inclusive housing.
Students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community can have unique medical issues or concerns, including needing mental health services, confidential counseling, or HIV screenings. In particular, students who are transgender can have specific health needs whether or not they decide to transition medically.
Though many, if not most or all, universities have a health center, look for one that offers services specifically to LGBTQ+ students. If there aren’t any, look at nearby hospitals, medical offices, and other healthcare facilities.
For further reading, consider GLMA, also called Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality, which has an online directory of LGBTQ+-friendly healthcare providers.
Research the university’s attitude toward the LGBTQ+ community. Do you feel welcomed and relaxed, on edge, or unsafe? If you are out, be sure you feel comfortable being out not only on the college campus, but also within the surrounding town or city. Smaller towns and universities may be less accepting or more difficult to fit into.
If it’s an online school, try to find information on student forums or get in touch with current or former students about the attitudes of professors and administrators toward students who are LGBTQ+.
A more positive, accepting university can greatly affect quality of life and academic success, so finding an inclusive school is vital for the well-being of students who identify as LGBTQ+.
Applying to College
Though some parts of the application process are the same for all students, students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community may have a different experience because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Students who are LGBTQ+ who grew up in a small town, rural area, or isolated region may face additional challenges when applying to college. They may have encountered more bullying and harassment in high school or have more limited financial resources. There may not be many options for different schools in isolated areas, and tuition costs at out-of-state universities can be almost twice as expensive as tuition at in-state schools.
For students who aren’t interested in housing on a physical campus, are more focused on completing their education than filling their time with extracurriculars, or who otherwise cannot travel to attend their preferred school, online degree programs can provide a valuable alternative. Many schools, including Maryville University, offer online degrees in addition to the programs offered on campus.
Disclosing Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity on a College Application
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community gives you a unique perspective on life that you can use to benefit and improve your application. In fact, an increasing number of colleges are optionally asking about sexual orientation during the application process.
In 2016, the Universal College Application and the Common Application updated its language to allow applicants to disclose their gender identity. The importance of this landmark decision creates the opportunity for greater insights and data on LGBTQ+ students in higher education.
Maintaining your safety and well-being is of the utmost importance, and you will not be rejected from a college for choosing to withhold information about your sexual orientation or gender identity.
Application Disclosure and Parental Figures
The application process may be more difficult for some students who identify as LGBTQ+, depending on whether they’ve come out to their families or not. If their parents monitor and control online activity, students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community may not be able to apply to their preferred schools or safely reveal their gender identity or sexuality.
If they have come out and their parents are not accepting, they may be even more restrictive about online activity or the college application process. They may not allow their student to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity on an application.
If students wish to come out on their applications but can’t, they should avoid putting it in writing; a phone call or visit to the university’s admissions department can be a safer choice.
Only you can decide if you feel comfortable disclosing your sexual orientation or gender identity when applying to colleges. However, disclosing your identity can allow you to apply for scholarships or LGBTQ+-specific programs and housing. You may even choose to write about your experiences as part of the LGBTQ+ community in the essay portion of your application, if it is relevant to the prompt.
Financial Aid for LGBTQ+ Students
The rising cost of college tuition, books, fees, and housing has made obtaining a degree increasingly difficult for many students. Facing a large financial hardship, most students are unsure how they will afford college. Students who are LGBTQ+ may have an even harder time financing their college education. While some will have the support of their families, some may not.
Without help from their parents, students who identify as LGBTQ+ need to find a way to support themselves financially. If they are still in high school, working a full-time or part-time job may not be an option. If they do try to find work, they may face more discrimination or harassment because of their identity. And if they can’t work or find a job, they may become homeless — a stark reality for many youth who are LGBTQ+. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Homeless Policy Research Institute, 40% of homeless youth are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
When survival or getting off of the streets is the primary financial focus of a high school student, saving money for college seems impossible, if it’s a concern at all. Despite the odds and obstacles, there are still ways that prospective students who are part of LGBTQ+ community can finance their college education.
The federal government provides financial aid for current and prospective students at undergraduate and graduate levels. Though almost all students qualify for some kind of aid, the most help is given to students who come from low income families or who have special circumstances. To apply for aid, students need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Federal aid is given based on the idea that students and their families are primarily responsible for covering the cost of education. This means that students need to include their parents’ financial information when filling out the FAFSA.
For students who have been disavowed because they are LGBTQ+, asking their families for help filling out the FAFSA or paying for college is likely not an option. Dependent students also need their parents’ signatures when submitting and verifying tax and financial information on the FAFSA.
To apply and qualify for federal aid without the knowledge or consent of their parents, youth who are LGBTQ+ must prove they are not dependent on their families for financial support. Independent students do not have to include their parents’ financial information when filling out their FAFSA. There are several ways to obtain independent status:
- Getting married
- Having children or other dependents
- Joining the military
- Being older than 24
For students who do not qualify under the above methods, they may indicate on their FAFSA that they are homeless or at risk of homelessness. They will be independent and require no help from their parents when completing the FAFSA, but students who are LGBTQ+ still may have to explain the nature of their special circumstances or come out to the university to receive their aid.
If you are unsure of your dependency status, this resource from the Federal Student Aid Office provides more in-depth information to determine if you are an independent or dependent student.
Scholarships for LGBTQ+ Students
Often, federal aid isn’t enough to finance four years of college tuition, books, food, and housing. In that case, scholarships can offset hefty student loans and help cover additional expenses. From merit to community service-based scholarships, there are grants available for students of all kinds and from all backgrounds — including those who identify as LGBTQ+.
Applying for scholarships can be intensive; some may have specific requirements, such as including an essay, letter of recommendation, transcripts, or proof of admission to their school. To qualify, students must identify as LGBTQ+ and often disclose their identity or orientation.
Luckily, there are many scholarships available exclusively to students in the LGBTQ+ community, including, but not limited to, the following:
Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
While not a scholarship, this civil rights group provides a database of scholarships for students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. You can search by state and narrow your search down to individual schools. Though the list is not comprehensive, the HRC is a great place to start looking for scholarships.
The League Foundation
Originally created by a group of LGBTQ+ employees at AT&T, this is a nonprofit organization focused on granting scholarships to high school seniors who are LGBTQ+ and about to enter their first year of college. They grant four different awards each year, and the amount of each award varies. To qualify, students must identify as LGBTQ+, be a senior in high school with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and include two personal essays and professional recommendations.
Live Out Loud’s Educational Scholarship
This nonprofit organization works to inspire youth who are LGBTQ+ by connecting them with successful LGBTQ+ professionals. Application requirements include living in New York, Connecticut, or New Jersey; being a high school senior who is LGBTQ+; and sending two letters of recommendation and two personal essays. The amount and number of scholarships varies each year, as does the due date.
The Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
PFLAG is one of the biggest LGBTQ+ support organizations for straight allies. Its program offers need-based aid, as long as applicants are qualified. Local chapters may have additional opportunities. Applicants must be a graduating senior who is LGBTQ+ or an ally and have demonstrated their interest in serving the LGBTQ+ community. The amount and due date of each award varies.
Also called the National LGBTQ+ Scholarship Fund, Point Foundation is one of the largest providers of financial aid to students who identify as LGBTQ+. Eligibility requirements include proven leadership, involvement in the LGBTQ+ community, academic achievement, and personal goals. The amount and due date of each award varies.
The Pride Foundation
This is an LGBTQ+ advocacy group that started awarding scholarships in the early 1990s. The Pride Foundation offers 50 separate scholarships for a range of academic disciplines, though only one application is needed for all awards. The scholarship is open to students who identify as LGBTQ+, straight and cisgender allies, and children whose parents are LGBTQ+.
The Queer Foundation
The Queer Foundation holds an annual contest to promote writing by, about, and for youth who are LGBTQ+. It awards $1,000 for each winner to study queer theory or a similar field at the university of their choosing. Applicants must be seniors in high school and write an essay responding to a specific prompt.
Additional Scholarship Opportunities
There are also scholarships available to specific identities within the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to searching for scholarships for LGBTQ+ students, look into opportunities available specifically to your own identity.
For example, organizations supporting transgender youth may offer scholarships or grants to them, but not to cisgender members of the LGBTQ+ community. Be sure to look for scholarships based on other aspects of your identity, such as extracurricular activities or major as well.
When researching financial aid and scholarship options, be sure to get in touch with your college’s financial aid office or LGBTQ+ resource center. They may provide more information and know of opportunities specific to the school. Your high school or hometown may also have unique opportunities for graduating seniors in your area. Scholarships require diligence when searching and applying, but they are a great asset for LGBTQ+ students looking to pay for college.
Mental Health Concerns Faced by LGBTQ+ Students
A growing number of college students are dealing with mental health problems, and students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community are at an even higher risk. Health resources for nontraditional college students are vital to ensure their success while going to school.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), people in the LGBTQ+ community are about three times more likely to experience a mental health condition than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. NAMI notes that sexual and gender identities themselves are likely not the direct cause of developing a mental illness in LGBTQ+ people; instead, they attribute this increased risk to minority stress, social stigma, and fear of discrimination, harassment, and rejection because of their identities.
In college, students in the LGBTQ+ community may encounter some of the following common mental illnesses:
If college students who identify as LGBTQ+ feel continually overwhelmed by stress, they may begin to develop a generalized anxiety disorder. On top of mental distress and feelings of dread, anxiety can cause physical health problems, such as reduced or increased appetite, changes in sleeping patterns, and elevated heart rate.
Anxiety can greatly decrease someone’s quality of life. If students who are LGBTQ+ think they may have an anxiety disorder, they should reach out to mental health services, whether on- or off-campus, immediately to discuss coping methods and treatment options.
LGBTQ+ individuals experience depression more frequently and more severely than individuals who are not. Depression is a serious health issues for students in the LGBTQ+ community — a study conducted by the 2020 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 40% of youth who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual have seriously considered suicide. Students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community who have feelings of hopelessness or intense sadness for two or more weeks may have major depressive disorder, and should seek out treatment from a medical professional immediately.
A 2018 national survey from The Trevor Project, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), and Reasons Eating Disorder Center found that over half of surveyed youth who are LGBTQ+ had been diagnosed with an eating disorder — compared to 5% of their peers who are not. Fasting, skipping meals, and eating very little food were the most common behaviors across sexualities and identities.
Eating disorders can lead to permanent physical health problems or be fatal if left untreated. If a student who is LGBTQ+ believes they may have an eating disorder, they should reach out to a counseling or mental health professional immediately.
Students who are LGBTQ+ may experience feelings of isolation or loneliness after starting college. Particularly common for students whose families have disowned them, who haven’t made college friends, or who feel their college is not accepting for their identity, these feelings of isolation can lead to more severe mental health issues if left unaddressed.
Students feeling isolated or lonely can connect with other students at LGBTQ+-friendly events and activities or at the campus LGBTQ+ resource center.
Whether students move across the country or take online classes and live in their hometown, starting college can be a stressful experience. The structure of high school is gone, and students must learn how to navigate their new educational environment.
In addition to the typical everyday stressors of college, students who are LGBTQ+ may also feel the pressures of “minority stress.” According to the American Psychological Association, “Minority stress theory proposes that sexual minority health disparities can be explained in large part by stressors induced by a hostile, homophobic culture, which often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination, and victimization.”
As a result, students who experience general and minority stress can find encouragement and strength through peer support groups, mental health services at their institution, daily meditation, or through service-oriented activities like volunteering.
The HRC found that teens who are LGBTQ+ are twice as likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol as their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Further, individuals who are LGBTQ+ are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder and often seek treatment with a more severe disorder than individuals who are not LGBTQ+.
In college, where alcohol and drugs may be more easily accessible than in high school, students who identify as LGBTQ+ may be at a higher risk for engaging in dangerous behaviors and developing mental and physical health problems.
Students who are LGBTQ+ are at a significantly greater risk for suicide than youth who are not. Supportive friends and family make a huge impact in suicide prevention. If you believe your friend may be having thoughts of suicide, reach out to them immediately; it could save their life. If you have suicidal thoughts or plans, connect with someone you trust for help and treatment immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call them anytime day or night at 1-800-273-8255.
Students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community should take the time to educate themselves about their legal rights and protections before beginning college. If they do experience discrimination or harassment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, they will know how to protect themselves and respond appropriately.
Some of the laws in place that protect students who identify as LGBTQ+ include:
Typically shortened to Title IX, this federal law prohibits discrimination — including sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault — in educational settings, programs, and activities that are given federal funding.
Essentially, any college, public or private, that receives federal funds can be held liable for damages if it was aware of and ignored sexual harassment or discrimination.
Under this 2009 law, the definition of a hate crime broadened to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. This law also made it easier for the federal government to investigate hate crimes should local authorities choose not to pursue them and requires the FBI to track statistics of hate crimes based on gender identity.
Often called FERPA, this is a federal law that protects the privacy of students’ academic and educational records. Parents and families of students who identify as LGBTQ+ have no legal right to access their educational information, including grades and financial aid, once the student is a legal adult. Schools are also required to notify students of their rights under FERPA.
The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of expression. For students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, that includes the right to talk openly about their sexual orientation or gender identity and express their sexual orientation and gender identity in other ways, such as dress and presentation.
State and Local Laws
Depending on the region or state, there may be other anti-discrimination and harassment laws in place. The kind, number, and enforcement of these laws will differ based on location. Consult guides from organizations like Lambda Legal or the Movement Advancement Project for more information on anti-discrimination laws and legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community at the state and local levels.
Students who identify as LGBTQ+ should report any harassment, discrimination, or hate crimes to their university or law enforcement if they feel safe enough to do so. If reporting the event will lead to more discrimination or put them at risk, seek out a safe space to disclose the experience. Many universities have resource centers for LGBTQ+ students, which can help students find the appropriate place to file a report and seek assistance from a lawyer or group specializing in LGBTQ+ rights.
Students should also file a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
National Organizations and Support Resources
For more information about resources available to college students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, check out the advocacy organizations and support groups below.
- Campus Pride
- Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or “GLAD”
- Gender and Sexuality Student Resources – American Medical Student Association
- Human Rights Campaign
- The National Center for Lesbian Rights
- The National Center for Transgender Equality
- National Coalition for LGBT Health
- The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
- Transgender Law and Policy Institute