Last August, Mills College in Oakland, California, made a ground-breaking announcement: The traditionally women-only school would begin accepting applications from students born male but who identify as female. (The college will not consider students who were born female but have become male before applying, unless they apply to the graduate program, which is coeducational.)
It was reportedly the first women-only college in the United States to set an application policy for transgender applicants—in what in the ensuing months has rapidly become commonplace.
In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jody L. Herman, a scholar of public policy at UCLA’s Williams Institute, which focuses on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, said that she expects awareness of transgender issues at women’s colleges to continue growing.
“It comes to an interesting conflict when you have a school that is specified for one particular gender and that school hasn’t had a policy on how to process applications for trans students,” she told the Chronicle. “But schools are becoming more aware of it.”
Since Mills College opened its application process for applicants who identify as women, other traditionally women-only colleges also have renegotiated their application process.
Smith College, one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges, adopted a new policy in May, announcing that it will consider applications from students who have or are currently transitioning from male to female. Two years earlier, a student transitioning from male to female was rebuffed by the admissions department at Smith College after they discovered the student had identified as male on a financial aid application. That incident drew national attention from an article in USA Today and from wide-spread social media comments.
In June, Barnard College also announced it will welcome applications from transgender women for the fall 2016 class after several months of surveying current students and alumni and hosting town hall meetings.
“There was no question that Barnard must reaffirm its mission as a college for women. And there was little debate that trans women should be eligible for admission to Barnard,” Debora Spar, Barnard’s president, and Jolyne Caruso-FitzGerald, the board’s chair, explained in a press release.
While colleges spent decades considering and accommodating gay and lesbian students, the push for accommodating transgender students arrived almost overnight.
With high profile celebrities and several well-received TV shows profiling transgender characters, the issue has quickly moved into mainstream awareness—and, correspondingly, courts and college administrators have raced to keep pace with the fast changes, from housing to facility issues, to NCAA rules.
In 2014, claims to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission based on gender identity jumped nearly 40 percent from the previous year and, within six months—the current data available for the 2015 claims—already the subsequent year was on pace for another significant increase.
The Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California, a national advocacy organization, has reported an increase from 1,500 calls asking for legal and education information on discrimination issues in 2012, to 2,500 in 2014.
For more insights, check out a series of interviews the Chronicle of Higher Education conducted with current transgender students at various colleges.