Colleges reaching out to recruit gay, lesbian and transgender students

Published: 4/10/2008 3:02 PM

They've chased star athletes. They've pursued valedictorians. Now colleges and universities are vying for the attention of gay, lesbian and transgender students.

Several Illinois institutions of higher learning Friday will join the likes of Princeton, Yale and other top colleges at the National Gay-Friendly College Fair in San Diego.

Recruiters say the fair and others like it are a budding trend. College and university administrators want prospective students to know their sexuality won't just be allowed on campus, but embraced.

Eric Tammes is among the recruiters planning to attend Friday's fair. Tammes is an assistant vice president for student services at Roosevelt University, which has campuses in Chicago and Schaumburg.

This will be the second fair of its kind Tammes has recruited at. He'll attend a third fair next week at Harvey Milk High School in New York.

"Students are coming out at a much younger age," Tammes said. "That process isn't beginning in college or after college like we may have seen 10 or 20 years ago. So these high school students who are out come looking for a range of things that show a college will generally have students like them, and a university with an inclusive mission."

For Roosevelt, that mission may seem obvious as its president, Chuck Middleton, is one of a handful of college leaders who are openly gay.

Other factors LGBT students might look for are gay and lesbian student organizations, gay and lesbian courses or majors, and gender-neutral residential halls where students can live in co-ed rooms.

Colleges are even subjecting themselves to ratings by gay-friendly organizations, such as Campus Pride. The not-for-profit unveiled a 55-question rating system in September. Colleges can answer the questions and receive a starred ranking on Campus Pride's LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index. There are now more than 150 colleges ranked in the index.

Eight Illinois colleges and universities are ranked in the system. Of those, the University of Illinois at Chicago has the highest rating- a perfect five stars. Bradley University in Peoria has the lowest rating- one and half stars out of five.

"These fairs and this index show that a campus is committed to go specifically to outreach to these students and their families," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride. "For the first time, every college can come and find lesbian and gay students who are out and let them know they can be themselves at their school."

Robin Matthies said she would've loved having that information available to her back when she was in high school. Matthies is now the coordinator of student activities at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which has campuses in Chicago and Wheaton.

She also is an openly gay adviser to IIT's gay and lesbian student organization and recruited gay students at a recent fair in Pennsylvania.

"We didn't have anything like that in my high school days," Matthies said. "But high schools all over the place have gay student associations now. When they get to college, the organizations there are a lot louder and a lot outer."

That's key for a school like IIT because its science focus doesn't allow for gay studies majors, Matthies said.

"We go to these fairs because we want students to know this is a gay-friendly school, and if you're into science, math, architecture or engineering, this is the place to be," she said. "The idea for these fairs is great, and it's really going to take off."