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St. Louis-Area Organizations Work To Help LGBTQ Students Apply To Colleges And Succeed

College and graduation illustration
Illustration by Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis-area organizations are working to make applying to and staying in college easier for LGBTQ students.

St. Louis-area organizations are working to remove some of the barriers that prevent LGBTQ students from applying to and staying in college.

LGBTQ high schoolers face stigma and discrimination that put them at higher risk than heterosexual students for mental-health problems and poor academic performance, according to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study says those disadvantages can lead to “negative health and life outcomes.”

That’s why the nonprofit Pride St. Louis and Serenity Strategy Network, an Edwardsville-based startup, want to give local LGBTQ students more resources to help them apply for college.

Federal aid frenzy

Pride St. Louis will host an event Friday to help people of any age understand the process for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA.

Pride St. Louis director of youth empowerment Harry Painter, Jr. said he hopes the event will help people, like him, who “may have fallen through the cracks at home.”

Painter said his family assumed college was his next step after high school — until he came out.

“All of the sudden, the crisis in the family was focused on, ‘He’s gay; what do we do?’ That whole drive for college was completely lost,” he said. Painter lost his housing, and his relationship with his father became strained. Facing those and other stressors, applying to college lost priority.

Painter’s problem isn’t unique. In a 2012 survey by the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ students aged 13 through 17 reported most frequently that they struggled with non-accepting families, bullying problems and fears associated with being out. Meanwhile their non-LGBTQ counterparts ranked classes, college applications and jobs as their most-pressing worries. The campaign argued that navigating additional social stressors puts LGBTQ students at a disadvantage, compared to their peers.


Now 37, Painter plans to enroll this fall in a respiratory-therapy program at St. Louis Community College. He said he hopes the events help others realize that they can attend college, even if their family doesn’t support them, or if they couldn’t go after high school.

The event Friday, titled FAFSA Frenzy, walks students through steps necessary to start applying to colleges. Volunteers will explain the application process for federal aid and address student questions. The Missouri Department of Higher Education partners with organizations around the state to offer these events.

After the event, Pride St. Louis plans to host several FAFSA-focused events on admissions essays and scholarship applications. The organization is offering scholarships this year, and applications open in March.

A broader problem

Getting into college isn’t the whole battle.

A study by Campus Pride found that LGBTQ students considered dropping out more often than heterosexual students — often because of harassment related to their gender or sexual identity. Campus Pride publishes the Campus Pride Index, the leading ranking system for LGBTQ-friendliness at colleges and universities.

The same study argued that many colleges did not offer adequate counseling, health care or protective policies for LGBTQ students.

That’s why Bryon Pierson started his own project, called Serenity Strategy Network, to rank the LGBTQ resources of local colleges.

While acquiring his degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Pierson discovered that some schools self-reported misleading data to Campus Pride Index. He found that broad-based diversity centers were listed as LGBTQ-specific centers, or LGBTQ-focused events being listed by schools that didn’t host any.

“It’s like, they had a table at their student center one day. That’s not an LGBT event,” he said.

That meant that many schools that marketed themselves to LGBTQ students didn’t actually have the resources that LGBTQ students need to succeed, Pierson said. As a gay man and student activist, he said he talked to many students who needed support they weren’t getting.

So he decided to build a database to help students find the schools that invested money in resources for students like them.

The database, available online, evaluates schools’ retainment, policies, health care, housing and resource centers for LGBTQ students. So far, only one local school — Washington University — has achieved an A rating; a handful received C ratings, and most received F ratings.

Many of Pierson’s measures for colleges match the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s measures for younger students. The CDC identifies health and mental-health services, LGBTQ-focused student groups, anti-harassment policies and training for educators as services that can increase LGBTQ student success.

Pierson said that he hopes the information will help “students that are similar to me — the students that don’t win.”

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.