Elmhurst College has become the first institution to include a question about sexual orientation and gender identity on its undergraduate admissions application.
Admissions officers at the Illinois college plan to use the question to connect students with campus programs and services. They will also use it to help determine eligibility for institutional scholarships given to applicants from underrepresented groups.
“We ask a lot of questions in admissions, so we thought, why not ask about this, too?” says Gary Rold, Elmhurst’s dean of admission. “We are trying to recruit students who are academically qualified and diverse, and we consider this another form of diversity.”
The optional question, which appears on the college’s 2012-13 application, asks: “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?” An applicant may choose “yes,” “no,” or “prefer not to answer.” The question appears in a section of the application that asks about religious affiliation and languages spoken in applicants’ homes.
Elmhurst’s question is unique because it concerns a student’s identity, as opposed to just his or her interest in a particular issue, says Shane L. Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an advocacy group. He suspects that such questions will become more and more common on admissions applications: “In the next 10 years, we’ll look back and ask why colleges didn’t make this change much sooner.”
Today, however, only a handful of colleges ask students even about their interests in LGBT issues. In its Common Application supplement, for instance, Dartmouth College asks applicants to choose up to three personal interests from a list of 22 that includes “gender identity” and “LGBT community,” but the form does not ask applicants about their own sexual orientation and gender identity.
Mr. Windmeyer praised the wording of Elmhurst’s question, which he believes sends an important message to LGBT students: you are welcome here. “The admissions form is one of the very first messages from a college about what’s important,” he says. “By standardizing this question, we can match students up with resources and start to communicate with them. We’ve got students going to prom who are openly gay. Those youth want to be out.”
Elmhurst’s decision grew from the increasing visibility of LGBT students on the campus, according to Mr. Rold. Recently, members of a student club called Straights and Gays for Equality (SAGE) asked the admissions staff if it would help sponsor campus events, such as the annual Big Gay Gathering. Mr. Rold and his staff agreed, and they now invite students from local high schools to attend the event.
That led Mr. Rold to think about other ways of reaching out to LGBT students. One challenge: Admissions officers have no way of knowing anything about their applicants’ sexual orientation or gender identity. Adding the question, he believes, will allow his staff members to personalize their contact with prospective students, in the form of letters and e-mails describing SAGE and other resources for LGBT students.
Applicants who do not wish to answer Elmhurst’s question, Mr. Rold says, are free to skip it: “As long as people have the option not to answer, we felt that we have covered the base of a student who’s not ready for that.”
Those who answer “yes” will be eligible for Elmhurst’s Enrichment Scholarship, which the college gives to about 100 incoming students each year. The award, which covers a third of the college’s tuition, has traditionally gone to underrepresented minority students.
Admissions officials elsewhere continue to discuss how—or if—colleges should ask applicants similar questions. This year the Common Application’s board members discussed the possibility of asking applicants about their sexual orientation, but they ended up deciding against it—at least for the time being.
At the time, Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application Inc., described the decision as difficult. Board members, he said, weighed the possible differences among applicants from different backgrounds. For instance, how might a gay or lesbian applicant in rural Oklahoma differ from a gay or lesbian student in Manhattan?
“On the one hand, we ask about all these other demographic items, like ethnicity, marital status, and religion, so some people asked whether not having that question there singles it out as something shameful,” Mr. Killion said. “On the other hand, not all 17-year-old kids know they’re gay or are comfortable with being gay, or they know they’re gay, but their counselor and their parents don’t know. Or maybe they do know but think it’s none of your business.”
Although other colleges may soon follow Elmhurst’s lead, the question will not necessarily become ubiquitous in admissions. So says Bob Schoenberg, director of the LGBT Center at University of Pennsylvania.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Mr. Schoenberg says. “There are advantages and disadvantages. It does ultimately contribute to diversity on a campus to have this information. The question reinforces the message that LGBT people are valued here. But how would a student who is questioning his or her sexuality or gender identity deal with the question? What does it mean if you don’t fill it out? What if you answer the question and feel that you can’t be truthful?”