The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Academic Wellbeing Among Sexual Minority College Students: The Role of Behavioral and Psychological Campus Climate

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 2:30 PM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon E, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Michael R. Woodford, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Alex Kulick, BA, Research Consultant, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Sexual minority college students experience discrimination on campus and perceive the climate as chilly and sometimes openly hostile (Rankin et al., 2010). Minority stress theory suggests that stigma and discrimination can contribute to chronic stress among sexual minorities, which can lead to poor wellbeing (Meyer, 2003). Minority stress researchers, including those examining campus climate (Silverschanz et al., 2008), have paid little attention to perceptions of climate for sexual minorities (Meyer et al., 2011). Conceptually, climate includes interdependent observable-behavioral (i.e., experiential) and psychological/perceived dimensions (Hurtado et al., 1998).

We investigate the relationship between discrimination, perceived climate, and academic wellbeing, namely GPA, school avoidance, social acceptance on campus, and satisfaction with the university among sexual minority college students.

Methods. The sample consists of sexual minorities (n=345; 67% female; 77% White; M=23 years) drawn from a census of sophomore and junior undergraduate students and a random sample of graduate students (n=2568) attending a large public university.

Scales were created to assess personally experiencing (α=.72) and witnessing (α=.80) heterosexist harassment. LGB acceptance on campus (α=.86), LGB safety on campus (α=.80), and LGB ability to be open on campus (α=.78) assessed perceived/psychological climate.

Students self-reported GPA. Ramos’ (2000) School Avoidance scale assessed students’ disengagement from academic activities (α=.74). Cortina et al.’s (1998) Social Acceptance (α = .74) and Satisfaction (α=.83) scales assessed students’ overall perceptions of “fitting in” and contentment with the university.

Following exploratory analyses, multiple linear regressions were conducted to simultaneously examine the relationship of each climate indicator with each dependent variable. Controls included demographics, LGB friends, and outness.

Findings. Personal heterosexist harassment is significantly associated with GPA, β=-.15, p=.04, and school avoidance, β=0.15, p=.03. Perceived ability for LGB students to be open significantly predicted social acceptance, β=0.23, p<.001, and satisfaction, β=0.20, p=.002. No other indicators of climate were significant in any multivariate model.

Discussion. The possible stress response related to personal heterosexism might negatively affect students’ academic performance. To cope with this stress, students might avoid school or underperform. Witnessing harassment and perceived climate might not engender a similar stress reaction, thus not affect academic performance.

The perceived ability to be open about LGB identity, the only dimension of climate significantly associated with social acceptance and satisfaction in controlled models, might have more personal salience for sexual minority students than perceptions of the university community’s acceptance of LGB people or perceived safety of campus spaces, or harassment in shaping one’s relationship to the campus community.

Strategies to foster the academic wellbeing of sexual minority students should focus on preventing heterosexist harassment, which may help create institutional climates in which LGB students feel comfortable to openly express their sexual identities.

Interventions to foster positive coping mechanisms among sexual minority students in response to targeted harassment are recommended. These should include culturally competent counseling services and academic supports, and strengthening students’ formal and informal support systems. Sexual minority peers and allies need to be prepared to offer appropriate support. Research examining sexual minority students’ experiences and academic wellbeing and other outcomes would benefit from considering the differential roles of experiential and perceived campus climate.