College students who identify as LGBTQ, and their allies on campus, have a big opportunity to score free money towards their tuition costs.
Scholarships specifically earmarked for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer community are on the rise, said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of CampusPride, a nonprofit working to create a safer college environment for LGBTQ students.
CampusPride, which rates schools for LGBTQ friendliness and maintains a digital scholarship database, has seen a more than a 35 percent increase in the number of campuses that offer LGBTQ-specific scholarships since 2007. (Calculator: How much do I need to save for college?)
The number of scholarships available to LGBTQ students from individual colleges, advocacy groups, state programs and private sector companies have also more than doubled in recent years, reflecting the growing trend towards tolerance within the academic setting, said Windmeyer.
“As a trend, we are seeing that college campuses want to be more inclusive of the diversity within their student body,” he said. “They recognize that LGBTQ students and social justice is something that matters to young people today.”
Indeed, many individual schools now offer their own such scholarships, including George Washington University, Michigan State University, Duke University, and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The eligibility requirements for LGBTQ scholarships vary dramatically.
Most require a strong academic record. Some reward personal essay winners, like those offered to high school seniors by the Queer Foundation.
Others are based on financial need, or geared specifically to students from a given school district, ethnic background, geography, career focus (like technology) or religious affiliation, including atheists.
The Asian Pacific Islander Queer Women & Transgender Community, for example, doles out $2,000 to two Asian/Pacific Islander “lesbian, bisexual, or queer women or transgender individuals” pursuing technical/professional training or a college degree.
Increasingly, though, it is not just students who identify as LGBTQ who are eligible.
Those engaged in volunteerism and advocacy, who support the community and promote positive change, are also eligible for most awards, regardless of sexual orientation.
And some scholarships are reserved exclusively for the children of same-sex parents.
Students who are “questioning” their gender or sexual identity are also typically invited to apply for scholarships, as many organizations include a “Q” at the end of the LGBTQ acronym.
“LGBTQ – the ‘q’ stands for ‘queer’ or ‘questioning’ — is the more popular term with younger people today because they recognize that there are a lot of other identities beyond just LGBTQ,” said Windmeyer. “It is OK to be questioning, because sexual and gender identity is a process of self-discovery.”
So what prevents a student who falsely claims to be bisexual or questioning from throwing their hat in the ring for a scholarship? Nothing, said Windmeyer.
Most often, LGBTQ scholarships are available to anyone (heterosexuals included) who can demonstrate real commitment to furthering the LGBTQ cause. There are those specifically distributed to students who themselves identify as LGBTQ, of course, but poseurs who apply generally will not be positioned to win.
“No one is going to tell you that you aren’t LGBTQ, but scholarship committees do dig deeper,” said Windmeyer. “If you are questioning, they want to know what that means to you. You need to have documentation or be able to demonstrate your involvement with an organization, for example. It’s not just about, ‘give me a bunch of money.’”
Scholarship award size
Scholarship awards vary in size. Many give the students selected $1,000 or less.
A few, however, are more lucrative.
The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, for example, awards scholarships worth up to $5,000 annually to LGBTQ students and their champions who are pursuing a career in STEM — science, technology, engineering or math.
And those worth between $10,000 and $12,000 are available through the Pride Foundation for students who live in the Pacific Northwest; the Live Out Loud organization for LGBTQ students in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey; and the Point Foundation, which awards top students with financial need and a proven track record of community involvement.
Some of the most generous scholarships, however, are available through private companies.
How to bag the scholarship bucks
To find scholarships for which you may be eligible, students can touch base with the LGBTQ center at their school(s) of choice.
They can also browse online.
Apart from the one available from CampusPride, the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign maintains a robust database of LGBTQ scholarships, broken out by both national and state-based awards, as does scholarship website Unigo.com.
FinAid.com, a financial aid consumer website, also maintains a list of LGBT scholarships broken out by general, athletic, regional, and campus-specific scholarships.
Gay men should have a look at the Gamma Mu Foundation, which works to foster gay pride, and has distributed grants and scholarships worth more than $2 million to students across the country.
Finally, the LEAGUE Foundation distributes prestigious awards to eligible LGBTQ high school seniors entering their first year of institutions of higher learning. The organization has awarded scholarships totaling $386,500 to self-identified LGBTQ students who qualify based on grade point average, acceptance to an accredited U.S. college or university, and demonstration of significant involvement in community service.
Students who submit their application for consideration of an LGBTQ scholarship should pay close attention to the specific criteria of the judging committee, tailor their response accordingly, and submit documentation of their outreach and advocacy for the LGBTQ community, where relevant, said Halley Cody, database administrator with Seattle, Washington-based Pride Foundation, which administers roughly 55 individual scholarship funds.
“We want to see students go out there and demonstrate a commitment to the LGBTQ community and furthering social justice,” she said. “Each of our fund committees has different criteria in terms of what they want from applicants, including what the barriers were that these individuals have faced. It can get very specific.”
When writing personal essays, college advisors also recommend scholarship applicants differentiate themselves from the herd by highlighting their achievements despite any obstacles they may have had to overcome, and explain how winning the monetary award would help them reach their personal and career goals.
In the quest to keep tuition costs under control, LGBTQ students and their allies should also cast a wider net.
By filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, they can determine their eligibility for low interest federal loans, grants, and work study funds. The FAFSA is also used to distribute state grants, and financial aid available through individual colleges and universities.
The maximum federal Pell Grant award, which is generally only awarded to undergraduate students, is $6,345 for 2020-21, but the amount you may actually receive depends on your financial need, cost of attendance, status as a full- or part-time student and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.
Students with exceptional financial need may also qualify for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), also called “campus-based aid,” which provides between $100 and $4,000 a year depending on financial need, when you apply, the amount of other aid you receive and the availability of funds at your school.
The proliferation of LGBTQ scholarships bodes well for students looking to trim their tuition costs.
LGBTQ students and active supporters of the community can potentially shave thousands of dollars off their education costs by making the most of scholarships that are earmarked just for them.
Windmeyer encourages students to apply for any scholarship for which they are eligible. Though tedious, the application process is well worth the investment of time. Even a few hundred dollars, he notes, can help pay for books.
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This article was originally published in December 2016. It has been updated.