Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students’ Likelihood of Graduating College: Penalized or Privileged? by Leigh E. Fine, Ph.D.

image by Flickr user California International Business University
image by Flickr user California International Business University

We know that social identities, such as gender, social class, and race, affect Americans’ likelihood of completing a four-year college degree. Using gender as an example, women have been outpacing men in college completion for decades now. This “female advantage” today is so pronounced, we are seeing nearly two women college graduates for every one man who completes a bachelor’s degree. Given the amount of research done on educational attainment generally – and given that education is an important determinant of one’s future life chances – it is surprising that little attention has been paid to how sexual identity affects bachelor’s degree completion.

As another social identity that has effects on people’s life experiences, it stands to reason that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people might have different levels of educational attainment than heterosexual people. If sexuality serves as a hindrance – or a help – in terms of educational attainment, those who wish to promote educational access for diverse groups of students would be very interested in such information.

Very few studies examine LGB people’s education levels; those that do tend to suffer from methodological shortcomings that prevent them from being generalizable. What literature does exist indicates that gay and bisexual men tend to be more likely than heterosexual men to have bachelor’s degrees, which is curious given the prevailing narrative that LGB people encounter social obstacles that heterosexual persons largely do not. Almost no literature exists that examines sexual minority women’s educational attainment.

My study in the American Journal of Education, “Penalized or Privileged? Sexual Identity, Gender, and Postsecondary Educational Attainment,” seeks to fill this gap in the literature. Using the National Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) dataset, I examine the effects of gender and sexual identity on educational attainment. This dataset is particularly useful because of its sample, particularly of sexual minority respondents: it is relatively large, nationally-representative, and contains information on background characteristics that also affect educational trajectories. I then ask two questions. First, is there a difference between heterosexual and sexual minority respondents’ likelihoods of earning a bachelor’s degree? Second, how does the combination of gender with sexual identity lead to different potential educational outcomes?

The Add Health data support prior literature’s findings regarding gay and bisexual men’s educational attainment: they are, indeed, more likely than heterosexual men to graduate from college. In fact, of all gender and sexual identity combinations, gay and bisexual men have the highest predicted probability of college completion: 44 percent, which is well above the national average for bachelor’s degree completion of 32 percent – and well above heterosexual men’s predicted probability of 28 percent. Sexual minority women, on the other hand, are the least likely group to have completed college. Their predicted probability of completing a bachelor’s degree is 25 percent, well below the national average – and well below heterosexual women’s predicted probability of 34 percent. All of these group differences were found to be statistically significant. (It should be noted that a more stringent statistical test indicates that there is no difference between sexual minority women’s and heterosexual women’s educational attainment levels – a matter I address in more detail in my paper.)

What do these findings mean for promoting equity in educational access and ensuring diverse students can complete college successfully? First and foremost, the lack of attention to sexual minority women is troubling, given their low predicted likelihoods of completing college. If sexual minority women are not earning higher-level degrees at a level rates comparable to their heterosexual peers, this disparity could lead to a potential loss of income, self-esteem, and social capital that could lead to better life conditions.

Second, the lack of data on sexual minorities in general, but sexual minority women in particular, presents a gap in our understanding of how sexuality as a social force influences one’s life chances. Even in my study, the comparatively small sample of sexual minority women translated to an inability to meet the highest, most robust standards of statistical significance. More data collection on sexual minorities, especially at the collegiate level, could enhance faculty, staff, and researchers’ ability to create data-driven, successful interventions for students.

Third, more research is needed to untangle the complicated relationship between educational attainment and sexual minority identity. Presumably, gay and bisexual men face discrimination in a world that assumes and enforces heterosexuality – even on college campuses. It is curious, then, that sexual minority men manage to outpace heterosexual men in terms of educational attainment. How do sexual minority men navigate forces of discrimination they may encounter to actually enjoy great success in educational contexts? For sexual minority women, knowing the mechanisms by which graduation rates are depressed could allow the development of programs, offices, and policies that could make higher education more accessible.


Leigh E. Fine is an assistant professor in the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University.


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