In 1960, only 45% of youth recently completing high school entered a two- or four-year college (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). In the Fall of 2015, almost 70% of high school graduates were enrolled in college (U.S. Department of Labor, 2018). About 10.5 million undergraduate students (62%) attend 4-year institutions, and 6.5 million (38%) attend 2-year institutions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018), with only about 60% of students who initially enroll in four-year institutions completing a degree within 150% of normal time from their initial institution (Kena et al., 2016). Institutions of higher education serve learners who are diverse in terms of race, class, ability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and may face challenges in effectively meeting the needs of, and retaining, such diverse students. Institutions of higher education may struggle in particular with addressing the needs of students who identify as transgender (trans) or gender nonconforming (TGNC) (Beemyn, 2003, 2016).
Many trans students experience discrimination and harassment at college, which may have implications for their academic success and retention. The U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), a survey of over 27,000 trans adults, found that 24% of respondents who were out as or perceived as trans in college reported being verbally, physically, or sexually harassed at that time—with 16% of those who experienced harassment having left college because of the harassment (James et al., 2016). The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS; Grant et al., 2017), which surveyed nearly 6,500 trans respondents, found that individuals attending college, graduate school, professional school, or technical school reported high rates of negative treatment by students, teachers and staff, including harassment and bullying (35%). According to the NTDS, participants experienced a variety of barriers to attendance in school—including harassment, financial issues related to transition, and lack of financial aid—that in some cases forced them to leave (i.e., K-12 or higher education). Students of color and trans women were especially likely to highlight these barriers (Grant et al., 2017).
Stolzenberg and Hughes (2017) found that almost 19% of trans first-year students reported major concerns about financing their college education, compared to 12% of a national sample—concerns that are supported by data showing that these trans students (a) came from families with lower annual parental income, and (b) received more financial aid, compared to the national sample.
Experiences of harassment and bullying within the higher educational setting may be preceded by even worse treatment in secondary school. Estimates indicate that as many as 75% of trans students report feeling unsafe in high school because of their gender expression, and 50% of trans students report being prevented (e.g., by school officials) from using the name or pronoun that match their gender, highlighting how structural and interpersonal forms of stigma intersect (Movement Advancement Project & GLSEN, 2017). National survey data suggest high rates of harassment (78%) and physical assault (35%) perpetrated against trans students during grade school (i.e., K-12), causing nearly one in six students to leave school (Grant et al., 2017).
In turn, many trans students—especially those who were out as trans in high school—may begin college with a history of victimization. College has the capacity to reinforce the gendered and transphobic treatment that many students have already experienced in school and in society, leading to poor academic and psychosocial outcomes; or, to support and empower these students (who already show signs of resilience, in that they have completed high school and enrolled in college), thus enhancing academic and personal success. For students who were not out as trans in high school, college can play an important role in facilitating gender identity exploration—such as by providing the supports and resources needed to allow students to navigate this process while staying in college.
The current report reviews research on trans students’ experiences in higher education with the goal of informing knowledge and practice by higher education administrators as well as policymakers. In this report, attention is paid to the institutional structures and interpersonal contexts that reify and enforce biased treatment towards trans students, or which serve as sources of support and transformation. The report concludes with recommendations to institutions of higher education regarding the creation of more trans-inclusive communities.
The report draws in particular from a multi-stage, multi-pronged project conducted by the author, which involved (a) focus groups with seven nonbinary (e.g., agender, genderqueer) trans college students, which in turn informed the development of (b) a large-scale survey disseminated to over 500 trans college and graduate students, about three-quarters of whom were nonbinary trans, and one-quarter of whom were binary trans (e.g., trans man, trans woman) and (c) interviews with trans students, nine of whom were binary trans and five of whom were nonbinary identified. All quotes are from participants in this multi-pronged project.
Colleges and Universities as Gendered Institutions
Colleges and universities typically reflect and reinforce societal genderism in practices, policies, and norms (Marine & Nicolazzo, 2014). Trans students seeking to express their gender identities encounter pressures to conform to socially constructed gender norms in terms of appearance, dress, and pronouns (Catalano, 2015), which affects all trans students but especially nonbinary students. Nonbinary students may struggle with presenting themselves in ways that are consonant with their gender identity (e.g., using pronouns other than “she/her/hers” or “he/him/his”) inasmuch as they face particular scrutiny for not seeking to conform to or be seen as “either” gender (Goldberg & Kuvalanka, 2018; McGuire, Kuvalanka, Catalpa, & Toomey, 2016). Cisnormativity and genderism are evident in multiple domains within the higher education microsystem, from physical structures to official records to policies to curricula to classroom practices (Bilodeau, 2005)—and, over time, may create chronic stress for gender minorities actively navigating their identity within such restrictive and potentially alienating structures. According to gender minority stress theory (Hendricks & Testa, 2012), structural forms of stigma create stressful environments for trans people, which may contribute to problematic affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses, and result in compromised well-being (Perez-Brumer, Day, Russell, & Hatzenbuehler, 2017).
Sex-segregated restrooms represent one institutional feature that excludes trans people and/or exposes them to harassment, which causes them significant stress (Seelman, 2014a, 2014b, 2016; Singh, Meng, & Hansen, 2013). Gender-inclusive and/or single-stall restrooms are rare or nonexistent on many campuses (Goldberg, Beemyn, & Smith, 2018a; Seelman, 2014b). Sex-segregated housing represents another institutional feature that contributes to exclusion, invisibility, and discomfort for trans students (Goldberg et al., 2018a; Seelman, 2014b). As one white college student who identified as a trans man said: “Most of our university dorms are split by sex so I was forced to live for three years on the half of the building that related to the sex on my ID rather than how I identify. It made me very uncomfortable, and considering how I present, I’m not sure anyone else was comfortable with it either” (Goldberg et al., 2018a). Nonbinary students face particular challenges with regard to accessing housing options that are safe and comfortable. As a white nonbinary student in Goldberg et al. (2018a) said:
I only have one issue: Gender-blind housing. Currently, students are assigned housing based on a binary choice of M/F. I believe it is easy to change your official university gender, but housing only sees those two options. Students are automatically randomly assigned a roommate of the “same” gender, unless they request “gender-neutral housing.” But “gender-neutral housing” just means that you have to specify a particular person of the “opposite” gender that you want to live with. There is no option to just be randomly assigned a roommate of any gender. For a nonbinary person, this is very othering.
Significantly, some colleges and universities have adopted gender-inclusive housing policies, but these are considerably diverse. For example, some allow students to live in the same room with one or more roommates of any legal sex or gender identity, and others offer apartment-style housing wherein each student is given a room with a locking door within a larger apartment (Krum, Davis, & Galupo, 2013).
Forms, documents, and records can also be alienating for trans students, who routinely confront paperwork that only allows male and female as gender options, does not differentiate between sex and gender, and provides no means for students to change their gender marker without legally changing their “sex.” In addition, few institutions enable trans students to use the name they go by, rather than their “dead” (i.e., birth, or legal) name, on records and documents, and the institutions that do offer this option do not always advertise it effectively or make the process easy (Beemyn & Brauer, 2015; Campus Pride, 2018; Seelman, 2014a, 2014b). In their study of over 500 trans students, Goldberg, Beemyn, and Smith (2018a) found that some respondents reported that their colleges and universities had instituted a chosen name process, but described it as incomplete or inefficient. As one white trans man said: “The preferred name option is not utilized for anything except the school login, leaving the email that everybody sees, and your name on school documents, as the birth name, which needs to be fixed.”
Colleges and universities also vary greatly in the extent to which they have policies that protect trans students, staff, and faculty from harassment, with community colleges and religiously affiliated institutions typically offering fewer protections (Campus Pride, 2018; Goldberg et al., 2018a). Despite the fact that, over the past decade, more than a thousand colleges and universities have added “gender identity” to their nondiscrimination policies (Campus Pride, 2018), such policies are not always enforced, wherein faculty, staff, and students who engage in transphobic language and acts are not always held accountable (Goldberg et al., 2018a; Seelman, 2014a, 2014b). Similarly, institutions’ health insurance policies are often trans-exclusionary: they do not cover counseling, hormones, and/or surgery for trans students or staff (Campus Pride, 2018; Goldberg, Kuvalanka, Budge, Benz, & Smith, 2018b), despite evidence that such coverage would ultimately be cost-effective for insurance companies (Padula, Heru, & Campbell, 2016).
Cisnormativity and genderism are also evident in the context of the classroom (Pryor, 2015; Pusch, 2005). Trans students often experience avoidance or antagonism from faculty and other students, leading them to feel anxious, uncomfortable, and possibly threatened (Bilodeau, 2005). Often, faculty do not take seriously students’ requests to use their affirmed (as opposed to birth or legal) name, creating anxiety and discomfort for trans students (Goldberg et al., 2018a).