Financial aid options for gay, lesbian students growing

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – In many ways, financial aid awards are like cable television channels: There’s one for every nook of society. In addition to general need-based aid packages, thousands of scholarships exist to specifically target certain majors, geographic regions or ethnic minorities.

However, one segment of the student population historically left out of the mix is one that has often been among the neediest: Gay, lesbian and transgender youth.

“There are all sorts of scholarships out there — there are scholarships for athletes, there are scholarships for women, there are scholarships for sons of Harvard graduates,” said Vance Lancaster, executive director of the Point Foundation, an upstart nonprofit offering scholarships to gays and lesbians. “There are a tremendous amount of resources available, and unfortunately the same level of resources has not been available for gay and lesbian students.”

That, however, is starting to change. Aid packages targeting gay and lesbian college students have blossomed to more than 100 different scholarships since the 1990s, many established in just the past five years. Observers attribute the rise to a variety of factors, including the growing strength of the gay rights movement and the younger age at which many gays are coming out.

The 3-year-old Point Foundation, the largest scholarship fund to serve gays and lesbians and the only such organization to operate nationally, offers dozens of scholarships each year to students based on need and merit. Several other scholarships exist at a regional level, most notably on the West coast, and a number of colleges offer their own scholarships for gay students. Most of the money comes from private benefactors within the gay and lesbian community.

Financial aid specialists said such awards fill an important need, as many gay and lesbian youths are socially marginalized. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, a Web site designed to help college students find ways to finance their education, said gay students often don’t receive the same kind of support from their families as their peers.

“There’s a recognition that gays and lesbians tend to have less financial resources than non-gays, in part because they’re subjected to a variety of situations such as being kicked out of the house when they come out of the closet,” said Kantrowitz. “These scholarships tend to help fill in the gaps.”

Moreover, Kantrowitz said, gay students often face discrimination when applying for traditional aid packages and other obstacles to financing their education. He cited the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law defining marriage as a union between members of the opposite sex, which prevents gays from listing their life partners as spouses on the FAFSA application for federal student aid.

For gay students, the scholarships are long overdue. Jessie Gilliam, a graduate student at George Washington University who was awarded a Point Foundation grant for her work with gay and lesbian youth, said such awards simply weren’t available when she was an undergrad, and she’s glad to see a new generation receiving support in such a critical area.

“It’s just been in the past 10 years since I’ve been in college there as been a support network for young (gays and lesbians) in a really organized way, so these are truly new opportunities,” said Gilliam. “For a lot of these students… these types of scholarships are the only way for them to gain an education.”

Yet while the number of scholarships for gays and lesbians has risen, gay rights advocates stress there’s still plenty of work left to do. Scholarships for gays and lesbians pale in comparison to those that exist for many other minorities, and many qualified applicants are turned away due to limited funds. Last year, the Point Foundation received more than 3,000 applicants, only 40 of which received an award.

“Those we’re helping are only the tip of the ice berg, and it’s a very large ice berg,” said Lancaster. “It’s really been a struggle for us to meet the needs within the community. There’s so much need still to be met.”

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