US states restricting LGBTQ rights face exodus of students

As states weigh hundreds of calls to cut gender-related rights, institutions are predicted to face relocations even more extensive than those tied to abortion

March 13, 2023
LGBTQ rights supporters protest in Fort Myers, Florida to illustrate 'US states restricting LGBTQ rights face exodus of students'
Source: Getty

A new wave of US laws denying gender-related protections is threatening universities with student exoduses even more damaging to institutions than enrolment shifts tied to the loss of abortion rights.

With annual state legislative sessions getting under way across the US, lawmakers have proposed more than 400 bills threatening LGBTQ rights, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ activist group. Of these, at least 175 are specifically aimed at transgender people.

Hard data on the effects of political interference on student movement is tough to find. But multiple experts expect significant implications, given the vast number of affected students. A 2018 poll by the Association of American Universities of 180,000 undergraduates and postgraduate students found that 17 per cent “identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, queer or questioning”.

“I think that it’s going to create a huge problem” for universities in restrictive states, said Lanae Erickson, senior vice-president for social policy, education and politics at the Third Way thinktank. “If you look at public opinion research over the last two decades, young people – traditional-age students – have wildly changed in their acceptance of LGBTQ people.”

Even flagship universities in cities that have long been regarded as “political bubbles” relatively safe from the conservative expanses around them – such as Athens, Georgia, and Austin, Texas – might see students start to avoid them, Ms Erickson said. “Ron DeSantis has burst that bubble in a serious way,” she said of the Florida governor. “He’s making it clear that you’re not going to be able to create a college town that is outside the realm of the Florida Republican party, and he’s coming at it directly.”

An online survey by the Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut, conducted online from February to July of last year, covering 12,000 LGBTQ youth aged 13 to 18 nationwide, found that more than 90 per cent of those in grades 10 to 12 were considering going to college, and that a similar number said it would be important to have a supportive environment.

Yet far fewer said they expected that to be a problem, with less than 30 per cent of survey participants at all age levels expecting that their LGBTQ identity would “negatively affect my future college and higher education opportunities”.

Some students might not immediately realise the threat, said Donald Kettl, a former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Abortion restrictions are already upending student choices of college, and state restrictions on LGBTQ rights “have the potential for a far larger impact, both in the choices that students make in applying to colleges and in the climate on campus when they arrive”, Professor Kettl said. The post-arrival effect, he said, could be seen in data showing that one in four LGBTQ students considered dropping out because of the difficulties they faced.

The head of a college advising service, Venkates Swaminathan, said he agreed that the effect of anti-LGBTQ laws on student choices was likely to be more pronounced than was the Supreme Court ruling allowing states to restrict abortion rights.

“Among our students who are in the LGBTQIA+ community, there is an almost universal desire not to attend college in those states if the student doesn’t already live there,” said Mr Swaminathan, chief executive of the admissions counselling firm LifeLaunchr. “Abortion has a more diffuse effect, simply because many parents and students aren’t thinking about that issue when they, or their kids, are in high school.”

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