Students have a plethora of options to consider when selecting a college, and many factors like size or location play a pivotal part in your decision. But it’s just as important to consider your social identities, which play a significant role in how a college will support your holistic needs. Colleges and universities have made great strides in expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on campuses across the country. Schools have become increasingly diverse and are recognizing the multiple identities students hold and the intersectionality of these identities. Schools that value intersectionality initiatives foster a sense of belonging for students, leading them to feeling more valued and respected. Here are some common identities you should consider in your college search—but first, let’s define intersectionality.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a term that was coined in 1989 by legal scholar and professor Kimberle Crenshaw. Intersectionality informs our understanding of oppression and acknowledges that social identities like race, social class, sexuality, and more don’t exist independently of each other. These identities act collectively and create systemic and compounding forms of oppression. Considering intersectionality allows us to understand how the experiences of a White woman will be variably different than the experiences of a woman of color due to the racism and gender discrimination experienced by minority women.
Today, colleges cannot separate themselves from the systemic injustices occurring in our nation. National events have garnered the interest of many colleges, and many educational leaders are understanding the importance of promoting equity and intersectionality initiatives on campus. For instance, the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville offered a course to educate students on the systemic inequalities that preceded the death of Breonna Taylor. And Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill declaring that public universities in California are required to provide students access to medication abortions, which are extremely useful to women of color and low-income women who face increased barriers in navigating our health care system.
Common identities that intersect
If you hold multiple social identities, many factors will play a role in your college search. Intersectionality doesn’t afford us the opportunity to understand our experiences in isolation, so as you search for colleges, make sure you are asking critical questions about how particular colleges will support your different identities. For example, an older student who identifies as queer may want to consider researching LGBTQ+-friendly colleges and the average age of students. Finding a college that supports all your identities increases your satisfaction and sense of belonging, and you’ll be more likely to graduate and complete your degree. Here are six common identities to consider.
1. Racial identity
Educational institutions have historically served and centered the experiences of White people while ignoring the perspectives of people of color. Eurocentric culture, or Whiteness, is not only found within the student population but also in cocurricular opportunities and the curriculum. Minority-serving institutions like Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) were established to provide educational access to students of color. Many of these institutions provide students with increased opportunities to engage with peers and faculty of the same race and provide culturally relevant cocurricular opportunities like the Black Student Union or Hispanic Students Association. If you’re a student of color and being surrounded by peers who share your racial or ethnic identity is important to you, consider attending a minority-serving school.
2. Social class/financial status
Financial status plays a significant role in student enrollment and retention. Many students from wealthy or affluent families have more access to financial resources to pay for college. They also tend to have access to mentors who can help them get accepted and learn to navigate college. Many first-generation college students have fewer financial resources and find it increasingly challenge to adapt to college. If you’re a first-generation student or facing financial challenges, consider attending low-cost college options like community college or a public university. Additionally, many schools offer support programs and services like TRIO to assist first-generation or low-income students with navigating the demands of college life.
3. Faith or religious beliefs
Is your faith or religion important to you? Many colleges and universities are faith based or religiously affiliated. Faith-based schools are often private, smaller in size, and afford students the opportunity to practice their faith as a core part of their college experience. Some nonsecular colleges require students to be part of a certain denomination, while other schools may not require an affiliation at all. If you’re religious and attending a faith-based college is important to you, start exploring religious colleges and institutions.
4. Gender identity
Up until the 1950s, single-sex colleges and universities were widespread, but that quickly changed as most formerly male colleges went coed. Remaining single-sex colleges provide students an opportunity to meet peers with similar experiences and participate in gender-specific cocurricular opportunities. At women's colleges, students get greater exposure to women faculty and authors in classes. Morehouse College and Spelman College are two notable HBCUs for Black men and women, respectively. If the gender makeup of a school is important to you, consider researching these colleges.
A 2021 Gallup Poll indicated that 5.6% of US adults identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Millennials and Gen Z are also more likely to identify as LGBTQ+, which means a higher percentage of LGBTQ+ people will be enrolling in college than in previous years. Many institutions offer Pride Centers or hold events and programs for queer students to foster a sense of belonging. With the increase in violence experienced by LGBTQ+ populations in the United States, finding a friendly, inclusive, and safe college is critically important. Start searching for colleges supportive of LGBTQ+ students!
6. Age and generational identity
The average college student is no longer the typical 18- or 19-year-old who just graduated high school. Many adult learners are attending college for the first time or earning higher degrees much later in life. In fall 2019, more than 7,000 students who enrolled in college were age 25 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Schools that primarily serve older adults also adapt their services to fit this population, such as offering more evening or weekend classes and opportunities for online learning. If you’re a nontraditional student who desires more flexibility in your education, consider checking out colleges that serve adult learners.
Choosing a college is hard, but doing your research to ensure you make the best life-long decision is critical. This is certainly not an exhaustive list of the identities students on college campuses might hold, but they’re some of the most common ones that play a major role in finding a school where you can thrive.
With all your intersecting identities in mind, start conducting your school research using our College Search tool!