A ‘Welcome Mat’ for LGBT Students

In a article on Wednesday, I describe why the University of Iowa has put an optional question about sexual orientation and gender identity on its application for undergraduate admission. The first college to do that was Elmhurst College, in Illinois, which added a similar question last year.

“It put out a welcome mat,” Gary Rold, Elmhurst’s dean of admissions, told me on Tuesday.

Mr. Rold described the addition as a meaningful change, though its effect is difficult to quantify. Twelve of the college’s 560 freshmen identified themselves as LGBT on their applications. Ten of 300 transfer students did the same.

Those numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story, Mr. Rold said. He recalled that during an orientation session, a student leader asked, among other questions, how many freshmen identified as LGBT; about 30 stood up. A couple of students told Elmhurst that they had not disclosed their LGBT status on the application because a parent had been looking over their shoulder.

Last year some commentators predicted that straight applicants would say they were gay just to get an “enrichment scholarship,” which the college gives to students from underrepresented minority groups, including LGBT students. Mr. Rold said he had seen no evidence of that.

This year nine of the 12 freshmen who identified themselves as LGBT students also qualified for one of Elmhurst’s academic scholarships. The other three were either black or Hispanic, and, therefore, would have received an enrichment scholarship anyway.

Over the last year, membership in Elmhurst College Queers and Allies, a student group, has nearly doubled, Mr. Rold said. Why? Anyone’s guess.

It’s easy to overthink the power of a 12-word question, even one that became national news and stirred debate among admissions officers. The question’s a potential conversation starter, one thread among many in the story of who enrolled at Elmhurst and why.

“We’ve learned a little bit more about them, and they’ve learned a little bit more about the college,” Mr. Rold said of LGBT students. “The next thing will be to see how we retain them.”

In admissions, you measure what you can.

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