Magazine article Liberal Education

The Experiences of Incoming Transgender College Students: New Data on Gender Identity

Magazine article Liberal Education

The Experiences of Incoming Transgender College Students: New Data on Gender Identity

Article excerpt

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.

Student finances

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). …

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