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The Experiences of Incoming Transgender College Students: New Data on Gender Identity
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender students in K-12 settings experience high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent), and even sexual violence (12 percent).1 It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, to learn from a separate study of transgender youth that “attending school was reported to be the most traumatic aspect of growing up.”2 (Encouragingly, studies of transgender youth have also found that supportive adults, especially teachers, play an important role in providing a sense of safety in school.)3 In response to the mounting evidence of discrimination, the Obama administration in May 2016 issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, authored jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education, extending sex discrimination protections to transgender students—an interpretation of Title IX that was reversed by the Trump administration in February 2017.
Many of these transgender students matriculate at colleges and universities across the country. What do we know about their background, experiences, and expectations? To explore this question, we conducted an analysis of data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey,4 which was modified in 2015 to allow students to indicate whether they identify as transgender. That change enabled us to disaggregate data for a sample of incoming first-year students consisting of 678 transgender students from 209 colleges and universities.5 We compared these data to the national norms for all incoming first-time, full-time college students—including the transgender students, who comprise less than one half of one percent of the total. To develop a holistic picture and to avoid a deficit framing, we took care in our analysis to present examples of experiences that demonstrate how transgender students exercise agency over their needs and their lives, in addition to examples of areas where these students fare worse than incoming students overall.
We examined the extent to which students may have financial concerns. Transgender individuals are more likely than the general population to be unemployed or homeless, and they face a great deal of discrimination in employment and housing.6 In addition, transgender people face unique expenses pertaining to health care—for example, costs associated with hormone treatments or gender confirmation surgeries—such that finances are likely to be a much greater concern for them than for the general population. Our data confirmed this higher concern for finances: nearly 19 percent of transgender students reported major concerns about financing their college education, as compared to 12 percent of the national sample overall, and some were unsure they would have enough funds to complete college. The proportion of transgender students facing major financial concerns was more than 50 percent higher than the nationally normed sample.
Two other variables reinforce these financial concerns. First, transgender students come from families with lower annual parental income. Whereas 56.3 percent of the nationally normed sample reported parental incomes of at least $75,000 annually, only 47.2 percent of transgender students did—a difference of about 9 percentage points. In addition, many transgender students may not be able to count on parental financial support for college if their parents take issue with their gender identity.7 Indeed, the proportion of transgender students (34.9 percent) who reported they will likely need to work full time during college was about 6 percentage points higher than that of the national sample (28.5 percent).
Second, transgender students receive financial aid at a higher rate than the national sample. More transgender students reported receiving Pell grants (32.8 percent versus 26.6 percent), need-based grants or scholarships (47.8 percent versus 36.6 percent), and work-study funding (35.4 percent versus 20.9 percent). More transgender students also received merit-based aid (60.7 percent versus 51.6 percent), which is especially encouraging given that the average high school academic performance of transgender students was slightly outpaced by the national average; 53.9 percent of transgender students had a high school grade point average of A- or higher, as compared to 58.7 percent of the national sample. Although these figures indicate that transgender students face a more challenging financial situation than their peers, the data also indicate that transgender students are somewhat more savvy in securing resources to make up for any gaps in funding.
One of the starkest findings from our analysis involves students’ self-rated emotional health (see fig. 1). Slightly more than half (50.6 percent) of the national sample reported being either above average or in the top 10 percent relative to their peers in terms of self-rated emotional health. By contrast, 52.1 percent of incoming transgender college students reported their emotional health as either below average or in the lowest 10 percent relative to their peers. Given the data reported earlier about their experiences in school before college, this difference does not come as a surprise—though it should be sobering for any academic leader concerned about student success. One of the major contributing factors appears to be a much higher rate of depression: 47.2 percent of transgender students reported feeling depressed frequently, as compared to 9.5 percent of the national sample. A significantly greater percentage of transgender students reported feeling overwhelmed in the year prior to college (54.9 percent versus 34.1 percent).
Our analysis of the CIRP data confirms the finding of other studies that transgender college students tend actively to seek resources and construct support networks in order to address their emotional and social needs.8 While less than half of the students in the CIRP national sample anticipated seeking counseling while in college (47.7 percent), nearly three-quarters of transgender students reported a good chance they would seek counseling (74.6 percent). One reason for this difference is that evaluation and referral by a mental health professional is typically recommended to those seeking or undergoing hormone therapy or gender confirmation procedures.9 Nonetheless, academic leaders should expect transgender students to be able to identify their needs and to expect trans-friendly resources to be available on campus.
Transgender students also spend more time engaging with social networks than the national average. They are about 14 percentage points more likely than first-year students overall to socialize with friends frequently (60.1 percent versus 45.9 percent), and about 13 percentage points more likely to participate in online social networks for six or more hours per week (39.7 percent versus 26.3 percent). This latter finding is especially important because transgender students infrequently have access to supportive transgender networks on campus.10 Even membership in LGBTQ student organizations tends to be predominantly cisgender, so transgender students often have a difficult time meeting other transgender people on campus. Unfortunately, this unmet need for social and emotional support may take a toll on transgender students’ ability to succeed; only about a third of transgender students rated their time management skills as a strength (33.4 percent), whereas 51.8 percent of the national sample considers time management a strength.
Political and social activism
Although transgender students reported greater financial concerns and lower emotional health than the national average, the CIRP data suggest that these incoming students exercise a great deal of agency in meeting their individual needs. They are more likely than their peers to take action in order to overcome the barriers they face. Nearly half of the transgender student sample reported having engaged in some type of activism within the year prior to college entry (47.4 percent), which is more than double the percentage of students in the national sample who reported having done so (20.8 percent). Further, more than two-thirds of incoming transgender college students indicated they were likely to participate in protests on campus (68.7 percent), as compared to about one-third of the national sample (33.1 percent). Transgender students are also more likely to discuss politics and share their views on issues; 52.1 percent reported that they discuss politics frequently (as compared to 32.4 percent of the overall sample), and 43 percent reported that they frequently share their opinions on important causes (as compared to 14.5 percent of the national sample). These views are more liberal than the national average; nearly 70 percent of incoming transgender students reported their political beliefs to be liberal or far left, as compared to 33.5 percent of the overall sample.
Due in part to their relatively high propensity for political involvement, transgender students scored higher than the overall national average on survey constructs measuring social agency and civic engagement. As shown in figure 2, more than four in ten (42.3 percent) incoming transgender students scored high on the survey instrument’s social agency construct (more than half a standard deviation above the national mean score), as compared to 28.4 percent of the overall sample. Nearly half (47.5 percent) of transgender students also scored high on civic engagement, as compared to 23.4 percent of the national sample overall. Moreover, transgender students reported a higher likelihood of committing to social change after college, which may be due to ongoing public debates affecting transgender individuals and communities.
As shown in figure 3, over half (55.7 percent) of all transgender students regard it as very important or essential to keep up to date with political affairs, as compared to 40.4 percent of all students. Transgender students also plan to influence politics and values; 43.1 percent regard influencing the political structure as a goal that is either important or essential, and 63.3 percent regard influencing social values as important or essential (for the overall sample of students, these figures were 22.3 percent and 43.9 percent, respectively). Incoming transgender college students are committed to social justice in a broader sense as well; transgender students were significantly more likely than the national average to identify helping to promote racial understanding as an important or essential goal (64.6 percent versus 41.2 percent).
Transgender students lack important legal protections that would ensure their full participation in our nation’s educational system—an omission that has real consequences for their ability to succeed academically as well as for their overall well-being. At the federal level and in most states, nondiscrimination law does not protect transgender people. At institutions of higher education that are committed to diversity and social justice, several steps should be taken to support the success of transgender students. In response to a climate marked by harassment and discrimination, which negatively affects the mental health outcomes of transgender students, and to validate gender nonconformity in the academy, college and university nondiscrimination policies should specifically include gender identity and expression.
To protect students’ privacy, colleges and universities should adopt procedures that allow students to use their preferred names and pronouns when interacting with institutional agents, including faculty and student services professionals. This typically involves adding a field to student records and prioritizing students’ preferred names over their legal names when the information is accessed by an institutional representative. Moreover, colleges and universities should adopt policies that protect the right of students to access the locker, changing, or restroom facilities designated for their gender identity and ensure that all campus buildings include a gender-inclusive facility that gender nonconforming students can access. Many colleges and universities have adopted a policy to ensure that all new construction includes at least one gender-neutral facility.
The analysis presented above demonstrates that transgender students are likely to seek out the social support they need through opportunities on and off campus. At many institutions, the number of transgender students who are open about their gender identities is small, and LGBTQ student organizations tend to center on sexual orientation to the exclusion of gender identity and expression. For these reasons, transgender students often have a difficult time building support networks on campus. While campus leaders should work to create an environment in which students are comfortable enough to be open about who they are, they also should understand when transgender students need to seek community and support off campus; indeed, they might even help transgender students identify and access these resources in the surrounding community.
Most importantly, colleges and universities should provide professional development opportunities designed specifically to enable faculty and staff to more competently and effectively support the needs of transgender students. The college experience of these students is very different from that of their cisgender peers, but they are not assured that the campus they encounter is ready to address their needs and respond to transphobia and cissexism. Transgender students come to college anticipating the need to resist a hostile climate, and our analysis shows they are ready to do so. College and university leaders should, thus, work to empower faculty and staff to resist this climate alongside transgender students and to co-construct a diverse learning environment that enables the full participation of all students.
1. Jaime M. Grant, Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011), 36.
2. Arnold H. Grossman and Anthony R. D’Augelli, “Transgender Youth: Invisible and Vulnerable,”
Journal of Homosexuality 51, no. 1 (2006), 122.
3. Ibid. See also Jenifer K. McGuire, Charles R. Anderson, Russell B. Toomey, Stephen T. Russell, “School Climate for Transgender Youth: A Mixed Method Investigation of Student Experiences and School Responses,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 39, no. 10 (2010): 1175–88.
4. Housed at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles, the CIRP Freshmen Survey provides data on the background characteristics, high school experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations for college of first-year students. For more information about the survey, see http://heri.ucla.edu/cirp-freshman-survey.
5. Kevin Eagan, Ellen Bara Stolzenberg, Abigail K. Bates, Melissa C. Aragon, Maria Ramirez Suchard, and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2016). Unless otherwise indicated, this report on the findings from the 2015 CIRP Freshman Survey is the source of the data presented here.
6. Grant et al. Injustice at Every Turn, 51–70, 106–23.
7. See Grossman and D’Augelli, “Transgender Youth.”
8. See, for example, Z. Nicolazzo, “‘Just Go in Looking Good’: The Resilience, Resistance, and Kinship-building of Trans* College Students,” Journal of College Student Development 57, no. 5 (2016): 538–56.
9. See E. Coleman, W. Bockting, M. Botzer, P. Cohen-Kettenis, G. DeCuypere, J. Feldman, L. Fraser, J. Green, G. Knudson, W. J. Meyer, S. Monstrey, R. K. Adler, G. R. Brown, A. H. Devor, R. Ehrbar, R. Ettner, E. Eyler, R. Garofalo, D. H. Karasic, A. I. Lev, G. Mayer, H. Meyer-Bahlburg, B. P. Hall, F. Pfaefflin, K. Rachlin, B. Robinson, L. S. Schechter, V. Tangpricha, M. van Trotsenburg, A. Vitale, S. Winter, S. Whittle, K. R. Wylie, and K. Zucker, “Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People,” International Journal of Transgenderism 13, no. 4 (2012): 165–232.
10. See Nicolazzo, “‘Just Go in Looking Good.’”
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Ellen Bara Stolzenberg is assistant director for research at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles, and Bryce Hughes is assistant teaching professor in the Adult and Higher Education program at Montana State University. This article is adapted from a presentation given by the authors at the 2017 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.