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Abortion laws, anti-LGBT rhetoric could drive students away from Texas colleges

As high school students make college plans, some are crossing off schools in states with restrictive policies.

By Valeria Olivares and Athena Tseng

Allyson Lastovica
Allyson Lastovica, a 17-year-old senior at Frisco ISD’s Liberty High School, is heavily considering out-of-state colleges and universities because Texas’ restrictive abortion laws and statewide legislation or policies that target the LGBT community.(Liesbeth Powers / Staff Photographer)

When students decide which college to attend, many examine a school’s diversity, safety, culture and — more and more — politics.

The recent Supreme Court abortion ruling has Allyson Lastovica, a senior at Liberty High School in Frisco, reevaluating her priorities as she debates colleges. She worries how Texas’ restrictive abortion laws will limit options for rape victims on campuses.

The 17-year-old, who identifies as queer, hadn’t previously researched schools’ campus culture, inclusivity or state politics. Now these are factors she closely examines, which means it’s less likely she’ll attend college in her home state.

“When you’re thinking about your future, you’re obviously considering your education … but then with these decisions on women and people with a uterus … their health care and their rights — it makes it not just about education,” Lastovica said.

Colleges and universities in red states like Texas may find it increasingly difficult to recruit or retain students because of policies deemed anti-LGBTQ or because of limited access to abortions.

Young adults tend to be more socially conscious today, said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits degree-granting higher education institutions in the South.

“It is possible that the restrictive legislation that’s surfacing … may indeed be a factor in where [students] decide they want to go to college,” Wheelan said.

Because the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe vs. Wade on June 24 and Texas is caught in a flurry of lawsuits targeting LGBT rights, Wheelan said university leaders haven’t had a chance to decide how they’ll respond.

“It’s just in flux right now … too much uncertainty,” Wheelan said. “It’s definitely a turning point for our institutions.”

Lindsay Fried, founder of Simply Admissions, helps families across the country navigate the college admissions process.

When she started the business in 2016, Fried didn’t think legislation would be considered as heavily as it is by students. Now it’s often as much of an influential factor for families as their finances, she noted.

Advisers such as her are skipping notable schools, even if they would be a fit, because of politics.

For “a whole lot of my kids, no matter their background, diversity is a big part of how they decide if they want to go to a certain college,” Fried said. “They want to be part of a diverse environment that supports everyone.”

That’s what crossed off any Texas and Florida schools for Dali, a high school junior in the Chicago area.

Dali, 17, identifies as queer and nonbinary — a term used by people whose gender identity is not strictly male or female. Dali did not want to be identified out of fear for safety.

Such concerns about well-being prompt Dali to regularly meet with a college counselor to ask about the number of homophobic or transphobic hate crimes in a school’s city as well as about statewide legislation or policies that target the LGBT community.

Texas Republican officials, for example, have targeted gender-affirming care for minors, arguing certain treatments amount to child abuse and should be halted. Florida passed a new measure, which has been dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, that bans instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in younger grades, among other mandates.

“It affects where I decide to go. … I always have to take into account, ‘Is this community LGBTQ+ friendly?’” Dali said. “I can never not ask that to my counselor. I have to know that. It’s a key part of how I will live my life in college.”

In February, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state agencies to investigate reports of transgender kids receiving gender-affirming care, which he said constitutes “child abuse” under state law. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said in a campaign email that he will prioritize replicating Florida’s controversial law in the next legislative session, adding that “schools cannot sexualize children in elementary school.”

Dali’s high school counselor, Joseph, said more of his students are worried about their well-being given the heated politics of some states. Rice University, for example, had been a strong contender for one until recent months.

“There is a lot of fear and caution with my students as they look at opportunities in states where they feel like they might not be safe or where they might not feel affirmed in who they are,” Joseph said.

The ongoing legal battles mean uncertainty. For example, although a ban on abortions is set to take effect in the coming weeks, medical care for pregnant Texans is already being hindered. Meanwhile, a judge has halted some transgender child abuse investigations.

Students must consider that they’ll likely stay at the school for about four years and that the landscape can shift at any moment.

LGBT students are already four times more likely than peers to choose a college away from home “to seek a more welcoming climate,” according to a study released this spring by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA.

And it’s not only out-of-state students trying to avoid colleges in the South. Some Texas high schoolers are considering leaving the state for similar reasons.

Arushi Sangal, a senior at Reedy High School in Frisco, doesn’t want to attend a Texas school but feels she may have no other choice.

She worries that court rulings and state lawmakers will continue to reverse progressive rulings, such as those that protect gay marriage. LGBT rights are paramount for Sangal, who identifies as lesbian.

Sangal, 17, does not want to live in a place where she’d need to travel out-of-state to marry. While same-sex marriage is currently protected nationwide, advocates fear the conservative Supreme Court will overturn such protections.

Still, leaving the state is a luxury that not many students can afford.

On average, the tuition for an undergraduate degree at a public four-year institution is nearly $26,400 for out-of-state students while the same degree costs about $9,200 for in-state students, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Going to school within the student’s own state can lower or eliminate housing and travel as well as open up state funding, such as grants, that help with costs.

“I’m definitely applying to a few Texas schools because in-state tuition is cheaper. It’s more affordable and feasible for me,” Sangal said. “Not only is out-of-state tuition significantly more expensive, but also being able to travel outside of the state and having to travel back and forth to visit family is going to add up.”

Sangal only hopes that, wherever she goes for college, she’ll find a welcoming and inclusive community. “I just want to be in an environment … where it’s more comfortable for me to be openly queer and openly talk about my experiences as a person of color,” she said.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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