Most Read: Local

Campus Overload
Posted at 11:13 AM ET, 01/06/2012

Rankings of gay-friendly colleges are all the rage — but are these lists accurate?


In the college admissions industry, LGBT students have become a target audience. These students (along with straight students who have gay parents) are looking for colleges where they will feel safe, welcomed and included — and many schools would like to sell themselves as just the place.

With that comes an ever-growing number of rankings of the most (and least) gay-friendly schools. In recent years, designations of “the most” have gone to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (via Newsweek and The Daily Beast), American University (College Magazine) and New York University (Princeton Review).
Participants at a 2010 National Coming Out Day rally in Key West, Fla. (AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Rob O'Neal)

I think we can all agree that it’s good to recognize colleges that work to ensure that all students feel respected. But ranking schools based on which ones are making more of an effort than others gets complicated. And unlike rankings of party schools or “douchiest” students, LGBT-related rankings are ones that gay students are likely using as a college search tool.

“For a LGBT student, picking a college is a matter of safety. It’s a
matter of inclusion,” said Shane L. Windmeyer of Campus Pride, a
nonprofit that evaluates campus climate for LGBT students but does
not rank schools. “It’s not about getting laid or going to parties. So
I hate it when LGBT gets lumped into the party schools.”

He adds that evaluating LGBT-friendliness requires deep research into how campuses operate: “Just because you have a gay club doesn’t make your campus gay-friendly.”

Campus Pride helps schools assess their LGBT-friendliness through a confidential questionnaire about policies, programs and practices. There are eight areas examined:policies, support and institutional commitment, academic life, student life, housing, campus safety, counseling and health, and recruitment and retention efforts. Schools are then scored on their campus climate — information that they can share on the Campus Climate Index Web site or choose to keep private.

“The purpose of this overall score is for campuses to measure their progress and learn key areas to improve their campus climate for the future,” the Campus Pride Web site explains. “The score also allows for benchmarking among campuses as well as a better understanding on how a campus can become more LGBT-friendly.”

Campus climate is rated with a star system — the highest score of five stars is for schools with “a continuum of progress for inclusive LGBT and Ally policies, programs, and practices.” More than 30 schools have earned a five-star rating, including MIT and American. NYU received four stars.

The index shouldn’t be the only tool students use when looking for a college, Windmeyer said, and a one- or two-star rating could be a good one for schools located in less progressive areas. He said that students should look for schools that have academic programs that catch their attention and then use the index to learn more about them.

So, what about the other LGBT-related rankings out there? How are they decided? Here’s an overview of two recent lists:

The Daily Beast and Newsweek: In its first round of ranking gay-friendly schools in 2010, the news outlet used an Advocate article about Windmeyer’s book, “The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students,” a list of gay-friendly colleges that was compiled by a marketing company that targets college students and “several broad measures of academic achievement,”such as SAT and ACT scores and selectivity.

In 2011, Daily Beast and Newsweek changed its methodology and now uses the Campus Climate Index (Windmeyer said he was never contacted) and anonymous reviews from the Web site College Prowler for “how students rate the diversity and degree of acceptance for each campus.”

A spokesman for Newsweek and the Daily Beast said in an e-mail: “All of our rankings incorporate a wide range of data sources, and our methodology is transparent.”

The Princeton Review: Since the early 1990s, the Princeton Review has compiled dozens of campus life rankings based on surveys of tens of thousands of college students. Today those surveys are conducted online, and participates must have a school e-mail address.

LGBT-friendliness has long been one of those rankings. The survey question to determine that has changed over the years, but last year more than 120,000 students were asked: “Do students, faculty, and administrators at your college treat all persons equally regardless of their sexual orientations and gender identify/expression?”

The problem with this, Windmeyer said, is that a majority of the self-selecting people filling out these surveys are likely straight and might not fully understand the experiences of gay students.

Robert Franek, a publisher at the Princeton Review, disagrees: “ We talk to whom we consider college experts: current college students.”

Related coverage:

Gay group carves out niche at Catholic University

Georgetown U. tries to be Catholic and gay-friendly

At George Washington University, coed quarters becoming an option for all

Campus Overload Live chat in 2010 with Michael R. Komo, president of Allied in Pride at George Washington University

For more higher education news, follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

By  |  11:13 AM ET, 01/06/2012

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company