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Students Majoring in Human Services

Biased and prejudicial attitudes have been empirically documented as a serious problem in American society since Allport's classic and definitive work (Allport, 1954). Initially used to examine racial prejudice, Allport's contact hypothesis has also been used to examine bias toward GLB individuals (Bowen & Bourgeois, 2010; Lemm, 2006). According to contact theory, bias toward the GLB population is based upon negative preconceived notions with the assumption that all people with a particular sexual orientation can be categorized with the same negative characteristics. Social Categorization Theory (Wittenbrink, Hilton, & Gist, 1998) explains how groups are organized into in-group and out-group formations or an "us or them" way of thinking. Differentiation of the in-group and out-group can lead to distorted viewpoints that enhance biased attitudes. Under conditions where time is scarce and cognitive resources are spread thin the process of categorization is expedited. Such conditions are often present within the multi-tasking social arena faced by college students (Pettijohn & Walzer, 2008).

Since colleges and universities are microcosms of society they are the logical place to address these biased attitudes and prepare young adults to function in todays' diverse society. It has long been acknowledged that college students' opinions towards GLB individuals can be changed through education (Cerny & Polyson, 1984). Recent work suggests that students may be most responsive to attitude change with the application of specifically designed pedagogical interventions (Chonody, Rutledge, & Siebert, 2009). Change can best be achieved when comprehensive information is combined with positive interactions with GLB individuals (Hinrichs & Rosenberg, 2002). This methodology elaborates on the contact hypothesis and is known as the information-plus-exposure model (Cramer, Oles, & Black, 1997). In regard to reducing GLB bias this means repeatedly combining topic-specific educational experiences, like readings, videos, and discussions, with positive exposure to gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons (Ben-Ari, 1998). Positive exposure could be accomplished by panel presentations and inviting well recognized GLB speakers to campus.

Hinrichs and Rosenberg (2002) examined attitudes toward GLB persons among 692 heterosexual liberal arts college students. Using established measures they found that negative attitudes were reduced when encounters with GLB students were both positive and personal. An important finding was that building friendships beyond mere contact was key to adapting more positive attitudes towards GLB students. Unfortunately like many college studies the pre-post assessment took place in only one semester. It is unknown if attitude change lasted over time.

A study by Chonody, Rutledge, and Siebert (2009) found that a variety of pedagogical techniques promoted acceptance of gay and lesbian students. The posttest scores of 211 students enrolled in a human sexuality class showed significantly higher acceptance than the pretest scores. This increase of acceptance was credited to incorporating the information-plus-exposure model into the course. Within each topic lecture issues specifically related to gays and lesbians were included. Exposure was accomplished via gay and lesbian peer panel discussions and GLB guest speakers. Since the pre-post assessment was based on one class these findings can only speak to short term attitude change.

Nelson and Krieger (1997) examined the effectiveness of a gay male and lesbian female peer panel as an educational strategy to change biased attitudes among 190 college students enrolled in a psychology course. Pre-post tests indicated that implementing a gay and lesbian peer panel for class discussion supported a positive change in students' attitudes towards gays and lesbians. A similar study of anti-homosexual attitudes in 173 college students enrolled in psychology and business classes was conducted by Cotton-Huston and Waite (2008). Results suggested that panel discussions and interactions with GLB individuals in the classroom need to be combined with classroom lectures over the semester to effect a positive change in attitude.


The research reviewed above suggests that college courses that explicitly focus on the diversity of sexual orientation, while incorporating an exposure component, could impact biased attitudes by increasing awareness and stimulating students to think critically. Changes have been documented in the short term using pre-post tests, but what remains noticeably absent from the literature are longer term evaluations examining the effectiveness of reducing GLB bias in a specific four-year undergraduate degree program. While all academic programs, regardless of major, promote intellectual growth, some programs are more direct in encouraging knowledge of human differences and an appreciation for diversity. These would include programs focused on human services, human development, applied psychology, community sociology, and social work. A search of the literature found no research that directly examined what effect completing a Baccalaureate degree in one of these programs may have on reducing bias and negative attitudes towards GLB individuals.

To examine this issue and address some of the shortcomings of previous studies, the current study used a four year cross-sectional design to test the following hypothesis: Seniors completing requirements for a Baccalaureate degree in Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) will report significantly lower levels of bias toward gays, lesbians, and bisexuals than freshman just beginning their HDFS coursework. Essentially asking the research question, does completing the conventional course requirements for a four-year degree in HDFS reduce biased attitudes toward GLB individuals? To address whether any changes could be attributed to maturity or the general effect of four years of education, the analysis also examined whether seniors completing a four-year degree in Business Administration (BA) would report significantly lower levels of bias than freshman just beginning their Business courses.

Data for the current study were collected from freshmen at the beginning of the fall 2008 semester and from the seniors at the end of the Spring-2009 semester. An anonymous pen and paper survey was administered at a small (700 student) branch campus of a major university in the Northeastern United States. The campus served as a "feeder" college preparing students to transfer to the main campus after two years. The campus also offered a limited number of on-campus Baccalaureate programs, the largest two being the HDFS program and the Business Administration program. Prior to graduation all students, regardless of major, were required to complete one of the three approved diversity courses that the campus offered.

A cross-sectional design was used to draw a convenience sample of 119 HDFS students (45 freshman and 74 seniors) and 27 Business Administration (BA) students (16 freshmen and 11 seniors). The total sample was 146 students (n = 146). All were older than average (mean age = 24 years) commuter students from working or lower class backgrounds who returned daily to the homes and neighborhoods where their original attitudes had formed. The majority (89%) were Caucasian, 9% were African American, and 2% identified themselves as some other race. The race, gender, and age demographics of the total sample were representative of the 700 students attending the campus at the time of the study. One difference was that the HDFS students were 90% females whereas the Business students consisted of 78% females. Similar studies of prejudice and anti-homosexual attitudes on college campuses have relied on predominately female students (Cotton-Huston & Waite, 2008; Pettijohn & Walzer, 2008).

To address the full scope of the student's bias towards gays, lesbians, and bisexuals it was crucial to utilize a measure that referenced the prejudicial stereotypes of each target group. A 10-item bias scale was derived from the Modified Godfrey-Richman ISM Scale (M-GRISM) (Godfrey, Richman, & Withers, 2000) to assess students' biased attitudes towards gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. The questions were coded "agree = 1" and "disagree = 0". Scores were summed so that higher scores indicated greater bias. Scale items included "homosexuals should not be allowed to teach children", "gay men are flamboyant" and "all lesbians hate men". Items were drawn from the M-GRISM scale due to its ease of completion, established reliability, and high validity with college students (Godfrey, Richman, & Withers, 2000). For the current study the 10-item scale had no missing data, high reliability (Cronbachs alpha = .72) and adequate factor loadings (above .42 using Varimax Rotation).


Mean scores on the bias scale are displayed in Table 1. An independent sample t-test showed a significant difference in mean scores on the GLB bias scale when comparing freshmen HDFS students and senior HDFS students, t (117) = 2.95, p= .043. However, a separate independent t-test showed no significant difference between freshmen and senior Business Administration students, t (25) = 0.10, p > .05. Though non-significant, it is interesting that the 11 seniors majoring in Business Administration actually scored slightly higher in bias towards GLB individuals than did the 16 freshmen. This may be influenced by the small sample of Business students. Nevertheless, the non-significant finding regarding the Business students lends support to the hypothesis that seniors completing their Baccalaureate degree in HDFS reported significantly lower levels of bias than freshman beginning their HDFS coursework.

To further examine the distribution of scores on the GLB bias scale a separate independent means t-test revealed there was no significant difference in bias scores between the 45 HDFS freshmen and the 16 Business Administration freshmen t (59) = .49, p >.05. This means that regardless of the academic program in which they were initially enrolled, these 61 freshmen students showed no significant differences on the GLB bias scale when they began their studies. The only significant difference was the reduction in bias that occurred between the freshmen and senior HDFS students.


Research has shown that individual courses focusing on sexual diversity can produce at least a short term reduction in GLB bias (Hinrichs & Rosenberg, 2002; Nelson & Krieger, 1997: (Pettijohn & Walzer, 2008). However, the effectiveness of any one specific Baccalaureate degree program in reducing GLB bias across four years of an academic program has not been evaluated. The current study provided evidence that after four-years of college instruction, and beyond completion of general education requirements that included one diversity course, fulfilling the requirements for a four-year degree in HDFS corresponded with a statistically significant reduction in GLB bias.

While it is true that all academic majors promote intellectual growth, some are more direct in encouraging the validation of different lifestyles, knowledge of human differences, and an understanding of sexual diversity. The results of the current study show that students who complete more courses specifically related to human differences and who engage in more interactions with GLB individuals show a broader understanding and greater tolerance of sexual diversity than students just beginning their studies.

A better understanding of why the HDFS students demonstrated a reduction in GLB bias by the end of their four-years of course-work could be gained by examining the work of Gurin (1999) and expanded upon by other researchers (see Milem & Umbach, 2003; Zuniga, Williams, & Berger, 2005). This body of work has identified three key factors believed to impact student diversity related outcomes. The first is structural diversity, or the number of students from different racial/ethnic/sexual backgrounds that make up a campus student body. The second is diversity related initiatives, such as the number and scope of the diversity courses offered at the campus. Both of these factors were alike across the HDFS and Business programs.

However, the HDFS and Business programs differed on the third factor, diversity interactions. The HDFS program followed an information-plus-exposure model. Information on GLB issues were embedded in class lectures and assignments along with direct opportunities for students to engage in exchanges of ideas and experiences with people from different sexual orientations. For example, at the time of this study a student group called the "'Rainbow Club" was organized by GLB students or those interested in GLB issues. This student group served as a peer discussion panel in many of the HDFS classes.

Other examples of exposure for HDFS students came during the course of this study. Judy Shepard, a prominent GLB rights activist, came to campus to tell the story of her son Matthew. In 1998, Matthew was a college student in Laramie Wyoming where he was tortured and murdered for being gay. Following her campus visit in 2008, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act in 2009. Joe Wilson and Dean Hammer came to the campus during the course of this study to talk about the negative reaction that followed their wedding announcement in a local newspaper. Their efforts cumulated in the documentary film "Out in the Silence: A Documentary for Change". Both of these talks focused on GLB issues and student attendance was strongly encouraged by the HDFS faculty. Many HDFS students attended.

Looking further, a careful examination of the syllabi for the 23 different HDFS courses offered during the four-year study period showed that the majority (83%) had classroom decorum statements which encouraged student's to openly share their views on topics related to sexual, racial, and religious diversity while remaining aware of the impacts their statements may have on those with different viewpoints. In addition to the decorum statements, 7 (30%) of the 23 HDFS syllabi had detailed statements that outlined the importance of respecting diversity in the classroom. Those statements explained how those who hope to work in a helping profession can benefit from understanding sexual diversity; the personal and professional value of enhancing diversity skills and competencies; and the importance of acknowledging multiple points of view. None of the 16 Business syllabi directly mentioned diversity or sexual orientation.

Although the evidence presented in this study support the hypothesis, there are limitations that need to be acknowledged. The GLB bias scale used in this study relied solely on student self-reports. While entirely anonymous, some students may have altered their responses to feel more socially competent. Like many previous studies this study relied on a relatively small sample of primarily female students. Since the study represented a small university in the Northeast the results cannot be generalized to all college students. To further validate these results future studies using multiple means of assessment are needed with larger samples from both public and private college campuses.

Despite these limitations, it remains extremely important to understand the value of preparing graduating college students from all fields of study for the diverse populations they will likely encounter. Certainly all academic programs related to human services (e.g., HDFS, Applied Psychology, Community Sociology, Social Work) should incorporate lessons into their coursework that enhance students' understanding of people with different sexual orientations. Likewise, opportunities for interactions with GLB individuals seem paramount in producing attitude change. Human service providers must be prepared to work with people who have a variety of beliefs and value systems. To maximize effectiveness, human service professionals need to understand the obstacles that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people face on a daily basis.

College administrators could also benefit from these findings. The results emphasize the value of embedding diversity interactions within the curriculum. Employing such a pedagogical strategy across the curriculum could reinforce lasting changes in students' attitudes. Relevant diversity courses and diversity training could be incorporated into the curricular and co-curricular agendas of all college programs, regardless of the major focus of study. For example, a plethora of topics could be discussed in business courses to prepare students for the variety of individuals they will likely face in the local, national, and globalized business world. By addressing GLB bias across the entire campus students from all programs of study would have a better opportunity to thrive in our growing and ever changing society.


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The Pennsylvania State University--Shenango Campus
Table 1. Mean Scores on the 10-item GLB Bias Scale

Student standing         N       Mean        SD

Freshman HDFS           45       3.06 (*)    2.47
Senior HDFS             74       2.17 (*)    2.19
Freshman Business       16       3.44        2.78
Senior Business         11       3.54        2.50
Total                  146       2.69        2.41

(*) Significant difference in mean scores between freshmen and senior
HDFS students, t(118) = 2.0, p = .043
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Article Details
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Author:Mcguigan, William M.
Publication:College Student Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2018

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