We have been hearing about how various women’s colleges are responding to the challenges presented by the way in which gender is currently evolving in our society and culture. The question facing women’s colleges should be distinguished from the general matter of civil rights that transgender people should expect and the respect they should enjoy from fellow members of society. It has to do specifically with whether an institution believes itself to have a continuing mission as a women’s college.
There are different forms of transgenderism, among them being those biological/legal males who identify as women; biological/legal women who identify as men; and those who, for various reasons and in various ways, do not feel themselves to fit within a two-gender system at all.
Of these different categories, the one that women’s colleges would seem to have the most compelling need to address is that of persons who are legally male as identified by our society (based on biology/anatomy), but who feel themselves to be women and wish to be considered as such. One can well understand why a women’s college would want to be open to them. Here the question is what admissions criteria a college may use so as to preserve the institution as a women’s college while admitting these students. Legal advice will surely be useful in this context.
It is also fitting and proper – as well as being generally the case – that women’s colleges support individual students who enter as women in the terms defined by our society and subsequently find themselves on a different gender journey. They should feel welcome, receive the support they may need through the remainder of their time at the college, and be received happily among the institution’s alums.
Beyond that, it is less clear why a women’s college should feel the need or the responsibility to make institutional adaptations to the general category of biological/anatomical women who already self-identify as men by the time they apply to college. While there is no legal basis for denying admission to such students, one well might question their expectation that a women’s college should make a variety of special adaptations to them as a subgroup of the student body. Insofar as transgenderism involves taking a less biologically fundamentalist approach to gender, then why would one emphasize the difference between a biological male and a transman (i.e., a biological female who self-identifies as male)? And why would a women’s college make the kind of adaptation to transmen that it would not make to men who have come by that status in a more traditional way?
If, indeed, the goal is to take less of a biologically fundamentalist approach to gender, then one would think an appropriate response to such students would be encouraging them to apply to some destination other than a women’s college to pursue their higher education. A similar point might be made for young people who do not want such categories as “women” and “men” to apply to them at all.
Some transmen who apply to women’s colleges have said that they do so because these are places where they would feel safe. This raises the question of what it takes these days to make students feel “safe” and whether the lengths to which colleges tend to go in that project – the many “safe” spaces that have been popping up on campuses for various special groups – do more to enhance a sense of vulnerability than to make young people stronger. It is hard to imagine that transgender students would be in greater danger at a place like Hampshire, Bard, Wesleyan, Antioch, Macalester or any number of institutions especially known for their open attitudes to culture change than at Wellesley or Mount Holyoke.
Unless, of course, they were buying into some familiar gender stereotypes, which would seem to be the case for women’s colleges themselves if they were to assert that they are uniquely qualified to welcome transgender students. Women’s colleges might argue that, having dealt with one stigmatized and disadvantaged group, they are well-situated to deal with another. But, just as women’s colleges do not and would not want to corner the market on feminists, so they do not and should not want to corner the market on those able to understand and accept transgenderism. Moreover, it is not as if women’s colleges hold some kind of privileged place in the world of higher education or operate as special paths to social privilege, as men’s colleges did once upon a time.
In brief, it would be reasonable and understandable for a women’s college to decide that gender as a basis for admission and for participation in the life of the institution no longer makes sense in this day and age. The college could then decide that it no longer wishes to be a women’s college. But, if it still wishes to be a women’s college, then it should reasonably be expected to serve women.
Judith Shapiro is former president of Barnard College and also is a former professor and provost at Bryn Mawr College.
College admissions is already a high-stakes, daunting process. There are so many moving parts students have to deal with: essays, letters of recommendation, financial aid, interviews, standardized testing — not to mention keeping up with high school classes and activities.
In my previous role as a college counselor for Bottom Line (a college access and success program for first-generation, low-income students), I worked with a cohort of high school students from start to finish in their application process. I was there to answer questions, give responsible advice, help make college accessible, and ease the stress of the process. My students were often worried about making mistakes -- as evidenced by the countless frantic phone calls and emails I would receive -- and now I have to wonder if their biggest mistake was trusting that their applications would be reviewed fairly.
I asked several of the students I worked with what they made of the situation.
For Kimberlee Cruz, a student I counseled in high school and college, having to worry about the FAFSA position would have been a huge concern. “It would have stressed me out, to worry that my fifth choice could have given me terrible aid just because I didn’t list them first. What if I didn’t get into my first choice? Would that mean I would have no options with good aid?”
Financial aid was the most important part of the application process for Cruz, a junior at Worcester State University, as well as the part that was most confusing. “Regardless of the position, you’re interested in the school; otherwise, it wouldn’t be on your FAFSA.”
Most of the students I have worked with wouldn’t think twice about the order they listed colleges on the FAFSA. For some, sure, it was probably in the order of their preference, but for others, maybe the order was alphabetical, geographical, FAFSA code numerical (O.K., probably not that last one, but you get the idea).
And why should they think twice? There’s not any indication on FAFSA that the order matters or that it will be shared.
Daniel Figueiredo, another former student, was shocked to find out that some colleges use information in this manner. “I think it’s completely unethical. To infer something like preference based on a list, it’s sneaky and can really mess up someone’s future -- it shouldn’t be evaluated.”
Figueiredo, a senior at Worcester State, said that he applied to a few reach colleges at the last minute, institutions he wasn’t sure he could get into but wanted to try. “I thought, what the heck, I’ll do it. Maybe I had a chance, but I put them farther down on my FAFSA list since I added them to my list later than some more attainable schools. I did get waitlisted for two of them, and now I’m wondering if the FAFSA position played a role.”
What students should focus on with the FAFSA is having accurate information, having all their colleges added, and meeting all of the priority deadlines. Financial aid can be confusing enough for students and their families, and for many, the weight of their future completely rests on the aid packages that schools offer.
Throwing FAFSA position in the mix is another step for applicants to remember, another potential barrier to access. And I wonder, would an alphabetical or random order even make a difference, or would schools interpret the list as preferential anyway?
Maybe it’s just me, but a college taking its FAFSA position into consideration for admissions and aid decisions seems like a popularity contest. I know that colleges want to fill their classes, that admissions recruiters have goals to meet, that everyone wants the best and the brightest to want to attend their institution. But holding a FAFSA position against a student -- especially since many students don’t realize that something so arbitrary could greatly affect them -- seems in direct opposition to the ultimate goal of getting students to attend and graduate from college.
If FAFSA continues to share this information, colleges engaging in this practice really need to reconsider their position on student access and success. And students thinking about applying to these institutions might want to reconsider as well.
Ali Lincoln is a project director for TVP Communications, a national public relations agency with expertise in higher education.
Under a chancellor who says he cares more about rankings than did his predecessor, Syracuse U. scales back involvement with well-regarded program for recruiting low-income and minority students -- and those students take note.