LGBTQ+ Student’s Guide to Choosing the Best College

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Search Colleges
TheBestSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.

According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning* (LGBTQ+) make up an estimated 10% of the college population. While LGBTQ+ students enjoy greater visibility, acceptance, and inclusion than ever before, LGBTQ+ students still face a unique set of challenges when trying to choose the right college, campus, and community. The Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life observes:

“College is a time of great transition and growth. It is a time when many LGBTQ[+] students begin to understand their identities in deeper and more holistic ways. Looking for the right fit and making the most out of your LGBTQ[+] experience is important.“

College represents a great opportunity for LGBTQ+ students. For many, this may be the first chance to:

This guide will help you seize this opportunity and choose the best school for you.

 

A Note on Terminology

LGBTQ+ refers explicitly to individuals who identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, but the term also acknowledges and includes individuals who identify as intergender, intersexual, pansexual, asexual, gender binary, questioning, and otherwise. While the LGBT terminology remains a popular shorthand term, LGBTQ is gaining ground as the preferred term. Some groups or organizations may prefer the LGBTQIA terminology, which also makes explicit inclusion of individuals who identify as intersex or asexual. In some cases, the “A” may also refer to allies.

Based on our deference to Campus Pride and other like-minded organizations, we have selected what our research shows is the most widely accepted terminology among allies, activists, and LGBTQ+ community members. LGBTQ+ is the terminology that we use throughout this guide, but this is not to the exclusion of any groups or individuals. To the contrary, the use of the “+” suffix indicates inclusion even in the event that additional groups or communities are identified in the future. The intention of this selected terminology, this guide, and TBS in general, is total inclusion.

Choosing an LGBTQ+ Friendly School

Some campuses and colleges are more inclusive than others. Some schools provide a wide range of LGBTQ+ support resources and host many LGBTQ+ support organizations, while other schools may lack a strong LGBTQ+ community or network of LGBTQ+ students. Some universities may have meaningful academic programs focused on LGBTQ+ students’ interests, while other schools’ curricula, course materials, or faculty training may not effectively address these issues. Some colleges may offer statements of acceptance, support, and zero tolerance for discrimination, while other colleges may be guilty of such discrimination themselves.

These are all critical factors to consider. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute’s survey of 33,000 undergraduate students, 10% identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, asexual, pansexual, or questioning. There are more than 200 campuses with dedicated offices or resource centers addressing the needs and interests of these LGBTQ+ students. More than 300 colleges and universities include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies.

However, as of 2017, only 26% of U.S. campuses had explicitly stated policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. LGBTQ+ students should consider this important factor when they seek colleges and universities with inclusive cultures and policies. Since LGBTQ+ students face a higher risk of sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, and exclusion, a college or university’s LGBTQ+ policies and resources can greatly impact your journey through higher education. This is true whether you plan to attend an online college or study at a traditional campus. The amount of support you receive and the openness of the community that you are joining will make a big difference in your educational experience; it could even be a factor in your ability to succeed.

With this in mind, we have compiled and highlighted several resources designed to help you in your search for an inclusive and excellent college. Whether you desire a college or university that has a strong LGBTQ+ community or simply a school that accepts and includes LGBTQ+ students it its campus culture, we will do our best to help you make this important decision.

These resources are presented with the understanding that LGBTQ+ students must consider an extra dimension when selecting colleges. Of course, like most of students applying for college, your selection process should involve these fundamental steps:

  1. Thoroughly researching the colleges on your list
  2. Discussing your college priorities with your school counselor
  3. Completing your FAFSA
  4. Visiting campuses
  5. Choosing the best school for you

But what should you be looking for and how will you recognize it when you see it?

Our goal is to give you a logically organized set of resources that help you answer these questions. In what follows, we provide tips, resources, links, and expert insights into how LGBTQ+ students can get the most out of their college experience, how educators and institutions can provide meaningful support, and how we can collectively create learning environments and communities that are inclusive, welcoming, and warm.

Issues Impacting LGBTQ+ College Students

LGBTQ+ students are more likely to face education and health risk factors like bullying, discrimination, and exclusion. Therefore, it is important that you choose a school, environment, and community where you can feel comfortable, accepted, and connected to a network of others who share your priorities and interests. Finding the right school — whether you plan to attend an online college or a traditional college campus — can make a big difference in your educational, social, and emotional experience.

At the start of the 2018 fall semester, we spoke with best-selling author, LGBTQ+ rights pioneer, and executive director of Campus Pride, Shane Windmeyer. Campus Pride is based out of Charlotte, NC and has offices in California and Washington, DC. Through its partnerships with over 1,400 U.S. campuses, Campus Pride works directly with students and college communities to confront discrimination and create learning environments that are safe and inclusive. Windmeyer says part of Campus Pride’s mission is to ensure that college is a place where every student feels welcome and supported. Regardless of who you are, you deserve a safe space to learn and live and grow.

Cultural acceptance for LGBTQ+ individuals has grown considerably in recent decades, especially on college campuses. But this acceptance is not always reflected at the federal policy level. Members of the LGBTQ+ community still grapple with discriminatory practices and policies, some of which make it harder for LGBTQ+ students to find safe and inclusive learning spaces. These discriminatory practices have accelerated under the Trump Administration and the Betsy DeVos-fronted Department of Education.

Moreover, cultural acceptance and legal treatment can vary widely from one region or community to the next. As you seek a college campus, find out how the campus’s community, region, and state address important policy issues surrounding LGBTQ+ individuals. Research both these local policies as well as general attitudes towards national policy issues that matter to you. This may tell you a lot about a campus’s culture as well.

Many issues affect LGBTQ+ students, including:

  • Housing Discrimination
  • Bullying
  • Title IX Rollbacks
  • “Bathroom Bills”
  • The Trump Administration's Pointed Attacks on the Trans Student Community

Learn More About LGBTQ+ Key Issues

Check out Key Issues Impacting LGBTQ+ College Students. Or read on to find out what other factors your search for an LGBTQ+ friendly college should consider.

A Strong and Visible LGBTQ+ Resource Center

One of the key indicators that a college or university offers meaningful support and networking opportunities for LGBTQ+ students is the presence of a functional LGBTQ+ Resource Center. This center is typically a home base for the LGBTQ+ community and its campus and community allies. This base provides students with access to information, resources, contacts, and a host of other materials for students and their families.

For instance, Penn State’s LGBTQA Student Resource Center — part of the Penn State Department of Student Affairs — provides a comprehensive range of education, information, and advocacy services to students, faculty, staff, and alumni…to create and maintain an open, safer, and inclusive environment honoring gender and sexual diversity. Through educational, social, and supportive programming, along with workshops and individual consultation, the LGBTQA Student Resource Center strives to serve the entire Penn State community.

The Penn State Resource Center offers a welcoming and inclusive voice as well as a Staff Directory and an invitation to get involved with the LGBTQ+ community. The center is officially sanctioned and supported by the university, is staffed by university professors, and offers information for a range of specific audiences within the LGBTQ+ community. This makes it an excellent example of the type of resource center you should look for during your college search. It is no coincidence that Penn State tops our list of The 12 Best Online Colleges for LGBTQ+ Students.

In addition to a resource center’s valuable support, the credibility and visibility of a resource center may indicate both a strong LGBTQ+ community at a given college and an institution’s degree of acceptance and inclusiveness. Look at this College Equality Index for a List of Colleges with LGBTQ+ resource centers.

For information about colleges that do not provide these resources and are often outwardly hostile toward LGBTQ+ students, look at Campus Pride’s Shame List; this list identifies The Absolute Worst Campuses for LGBTQ+ Youth.

A Clear Policy of Non-Discrimination Against LGBTQ+ Individuals

An inclusive college or university will have a clear policy of non-discrimination, and this policy will explicitly identify sexual orientation and gender identity as two areas in which discrimination of any kind is strictly prohibited. Offering such an uncompromising policy is an important first step for any college or university that wishes to create a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

According to a 2017 survey by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 347 institutions of higher education had explicitly-stated policies prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

If a college or university does not have such a stated policy, it might be an indication it has not fully considered the issues impacting LGBTQ+ minority or marginalized students. This could be a warning sign that certain protections do not exist or that support resources may not be available. It also means that you might face some bureaucratic hurdles if you are the victim of housing discrimination, bathroom-based exclusion, or bullying at the hands of classmates or faculty.

Under the leadership of Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration, the Department of Education aggressively downsized its Office of Civil Rights and significantly reduced the number of discrimination grievances it will consider. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for students to pursue discrimination claims against a college or university, especially claims involving sexual orientation or gender identity. This makes it incredibly important to choose a school that has its own clearly stated policies and procedures for confronting discrimination claims.

If a colleges or university has stated policies of non-discrimination, then you need to be sure that these policies are adequately enforced. Find out how discrimination complaints are handled, what procedures protect impacted students, and whether the school has a good track record on following through with complaints or fixing institutional shortcomings.

Learn More About LGBTQ+ Civil Rights

To learn more about the policy changes impacting campus discrimination cases, check out The Department of Education vs. Civil Rights.

Vibrant LGBTQ+ Academic Life: Queer and Gender Studies

A college or university’s curriculum and course content can indicate the climate of the campus’s LGTBQ+ culture. When selecting a school, you might seek a college or university whose academic identity reflects an awareness of the queer experience.

One of the best indicators of this awareness is a comprehensive Queer and Gender Studies program. You might also consider looking for schools with LGBTQ+ representation among professors, researchers, faculty, and administrators as well as authors of and contributors to curriculum development. Another good indicator might be whether the school uses textbooks and course content provided by LGBTQ+ authors, academics, activists, and contributors.

If you are applying to a college or university and these features are a priority for you, then there are a few ways you can get more information. Reach out to the LGBTQ+ Resource Center at your intended campus and ask questions about the school’s academic life and campus groups. This Resource Center may provide you with a summary of the school’s courses and degree programs that focus on queer, gender, and feminist studies. Colleges and campuses with strong LGBTQ+ communities are likely to have more generous and varied course offerings.

Note: If a college or university on your list does not have an LGBTQ+ Resource Center, this may be an indication that the school is not fully resourced or equipped to support your needs, protect your rights, or place you in touch with a strong LGBTQ+ community.

A school’s Resource Center might also be equipped to put you in touch with faculty who identify as LGBTQ+. This includes faculty who are involved with the Resource Center, the queer and gender studies program, the campus LGBTQ+ community, or broader national activism and policy issues.

Beyond LGBTQ+-identifying faulty, an academically inclusive campus environment is one in which professors, faculty, and staff are aware of and sensitive to the experiences and needs of LGBTQ+ students. Maintaining this awareness and sensitivity requires ongoing training and continuing education.

Find out if your chosen schools provide faculty training and workshops on: (1) the general subjects of sensitivity and inclusion, and (2) the specific subjects related to the LGBTQ+ student experience. Also check whether your chosen colleges or universities provides sufficient resources and opportunities for educators to become allies.

You can also look at the course catalogue for each college on your list. Look for those with comprehensive gender studies departments and a full variety of queer, gender, and feminist courses. This may help you narrow down your list of colleges before you reach out to individual Resource Centers.

Inclusive Resident Life and Fair Housing

Resident life is a huge part of college, and it is important to feel safe and welcome in your living space. Part of your college search should include a review of resident-life options and how they relate to your needs.

As of 2017, only 26% of college campuses had explicitly stated policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Such policies may be an important part of assuring your on-campus housing rights, particularly as they relate to matters of privacy, equal treatment, and protection from bullying.

Of course, you may seek more than just protection from discrimination. For some, their ideal campus creates unique opportunities for the development of a strong LGBTQ+ community. Some campuses may offer LGBTQ+ housing for those who desire this residential experience. For each school on your list, find out the available housing options.

If you plan on living in general student housing, it is important for you answer the following questions:

  • Is housing gender-inclusive?
  • Will your gender identity conflict with residential bathroom policies?
  • Have the Resident Assistants received LGBTQ+ resident issues training?

Note that some colleges offer roommate matching. This could be an opportunity to be paired with somebody who meets your criteria for compatibility. To learn more about the housing and residency options at your college of choice, reach out to the school’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center.

Note: If a college or university on your list does not have an LGBTQ+ Resource Center, this may be an indication that the school is not fully resourced or equipped to support your needs, protect your rights, or place you in touch with a strong LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQ+ College Student Groups and Organizations

In addition to a university’s policies and resources, it is important for a school to possess a student body that includes, welcomes, and provides LGBTQ+ individuals with positive opportunities for involvement in student activities. Among the best indicators of a welcoming student body, as well as a strong queer community, is the presence of visible and active LGBTQ+ social groups.

Look for colleges or universities with vibrant LGBTQ+ social scenes, which could include:

  • Clubs for Queer People of Color
  • Faith-oriented LGBTQ+ Groups
  • Gay-Straight Alliance Chapters
  • LGBTQ+ Greek Houses
  • Questioning Groups

There are hosts of other clubs and student groups assembled around interests and issues related to gender or sexual orientation as well.

Learn More About LGBTQ+ Student Groups

  • To find or start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance, visit GSA Network.
  • To seek an LGBTQ+ Greek house, check out Campus Pride’s Lambda 10 initiative.
  • To start an LGBTQ+ Greek chapter on your campus, check out Campus Pride’s Greek Ally Network.

LGBTQ+ Health Services and Counseling

Student health services at an inclusive college or university will include medical staff and counseling personnel who have been trained in LGBTQ+-specific issues. There are medical and mental health issues that uniquely impact LGBTQ+ students. Therefore, it is important to know that the medical and mental health personnel at your school are prepared to facilitate these needs with awareness, sensitivity, and compassion.

As you learn more about the health services affiliated with your campus or university, find out if your school offers:

  • Counseling and Support for Individuals Targeted by Bullying or Discrimination
  • Free and Anonymous HIV/STI Testing
  • Ongoing Training of Medical and Counseling Professionals in the Evolving Health Issues Impacting LGBTQ+ Students.
  • Resources for Safe/Contraceptive Care
  • Support for Transgender Needs: Reassignment, Gender Therapy, Voice Modification, Use of Preferred Name, Bathroom Facilities, etc.

These are campus-specific features, so you should reach out directly to the colleges and universities on your list and find out how prepared they are to handle these needs. As in other areas of LGBTQ+ campus life, your campus’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center is a great starting point. In addition to providing you with a clearer sense of the medical training and resources available at your intended college or university, the Resource Center may be able to put you in direct contact with counselors, advisors, or others who are sensitive to your priorities, questions, and needs.

Learn More About Student Health

To learn more about the general health issues impacting colleges students, check out Student Health in Focus. This resource is loaded with tips, contacts, and valuable information on a wide range of student health concerns.

The Best Online Colleges for LGBTQ+ Students

Online college may offer a unique opportunity for LGBTQ+ students who are looking for ways to shape their own educational experience. If you live in a region or community that lacks a meaningful support network, or you lack physical access to an inclusive traditional campus, then online college could give you a new and welcoming path to higher education. This makes online college an especially powerful channel for LGBTQ+ students who may feel otherwise culturally and socially isolated.

Online college creates connections that transcend geographical boundaries. It might be the first real opportunity that LGBTQ+ students in small towns, rural regions, or more conservative communities must meet other LGBTQ+ students or even freely express their identities.

Enrolling in an online college makes you part of a whole new community that is completely separate from your geographical setting. And as part of this community, you now have access to the student groups, counseling services, educational resources, and faculty that come with it. If you live in an area where support and visibility for LGBTQ+ individuals are scarce, then this access can become a critical source for advocacy.

If you are an online student, make sure you seek out and take advantage of the resources and support network that come with your enrollment.

Find Your School

LGBTQ+ Scholarships

There are many organizations and benefactors dedicated to furthering the causes, advancing the policy priorities, and improving the cultural visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals.

Accordingly, there are numerous foundations and organizations who sponsor scholarship opportunities earmarked for LGBTQ+ students. Strongly consider seeking out and applying to any scholarships for which you are eligible. There might be geographical or economic circumstances preventing you from locating, selecting, or attending a college or university that is inclusive and welcoming, but a scholarship could help you overcome these obstacles.

Extra funding could be the boost you need to attend a college or university that truly understands and respects your needs, not to mention a school with a stronger academic reputation, more qualified instructors, and a wider range of academic and student life resources. Start by checking out these noteworthy LGBTQ+-specific scholarship opportunities:

Learn More About Scholarships

Support and Resources for LGBTQ+ Students

Another good indicator of a college or university with an inclusive atmosphere is the presence of local or campus advocacy chapters connected to national or global support organizations. Leading advocacy and activist groups — both those tailored to LGBTQ+ students and those connected to the larger national and global LGBTQ+ communities — may work closely with students, faculty, and universities to establish an on-campus presence, engage in meaningful outreach, and initiate far-reaching policy action plans.

Check out a few of the top LGBTQ+ student advocacy groups and find out which schools they work with to improve the LGBTQ+ educational experiences:

There are also various resources designed to help LGBTQ+ students connect to the broader LGBTQ+ community and to help educators provide effective support for LGBTQ+ students. These resources also help allies do their part by creating welcoming and inclusive colleges, campuses, and communities. Connect with these groups both during your college selection process and as a source of support during your educational journey. These groups are an important reminder that you are not alone, even if your campus or online-college lacks a strong LGBTQ+ community. There are many people who have been through what you are currently experiencing, and they are ready to help you succeed and thrive.

Learn More About LGBTQ+ Organizations

Take the next step towards your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

Woman working at desk