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Asking Tough Questions: College and LGBT Applicant Identification

In early summer each year, colleges and universities across the nation begin to send information to their newly admitted students about orientation, class registration, and, of course, a list of dorm-room essentials. Many of these schools will also send out a roommate questionnaire, which allows students to select their sleep and study habits, food preferences, and musical likes and dislikes (as well as a bevy of other run-of-the-mill questions), so that their institution’s division of residence life can accurately match new freshmen as roommates.

This year, however, students may find a new topic area not only on their questionnaires, but also on their initial applications: sexual orientation. And while many may be quick to condemn this addition—and, believe me, I’ve heard some pretty outlandish criticism—their comments are generally shortsighted and eclipsed by the overwhelming benefits institutions can provide to students by collecting this type of information.

The addition of questions explicitly pertaining to sexual orientation can be traced to the 2011-2012 application cycle with Elmhurst College, a small, private liberal arts school located in Illinois. Prior to Elmhurst’s landmark step, many schools used secondary information to identify potential members of the LGBT community. This information included excerpts from essays, participation in specific organizations, such as a Gay-Straight Alliance while in high school, and the use of keywords within an application. This method of data collection relied on estimates and was generally conducted for statistical purposes only.

In 2011, however, Elmhurst announced that the college would be adding questions explicitly concerning sexual orientation to its application. Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray likened the college’s move to include these questions to those pertaining to any underrepresented student group. “As for all students from underrepresented groups,” Ray noted, “the sooner we know how many such students to expect, the better we can plan appropriate co-curricular programming, as well as link up those students with their particular campus affinity groups” (Foley, 2012, p.1).

And while the administrative decisions of a small, private liberal arts school caught the attention of some, the University of Iowa’s decision to follow suit just one year later started a national discussion on the subject. According to the university’s website, the move was framed to be in line with the school’s leadership on civil rights issues. Iowa’s director of admissions, Michael Barron, noted that questions gauging LGBT population density make sense at a school whose home state was the first Midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage. To be sure, students consider a variety of factors when they apply to schools, such as location and cost of attendance, but also are interested in social issues to make sure they “fit in” to the campus environment (Foley, 2012, p.1).

It makes a great deal of sense to follow in Elmhurst’s and Iowa’s footsteps on this front. In an educational environment where resources, such as funding, event space and staff, are becoming increasingly difficult to secure, why wouldn’t an institution want to have the most possible accurate information about who is actually attending? Consider the way universities already track data points such as race, religion, and nationality. Many of these diversity factors are visual, making it easy to identify students who belong to these groups. Sexual orientation, however, is not always immediately apparent, making it incredibly difficult to ascertain without tactfully asking.

To be sure, the current system of simply not knowing the LGBT student population density forces colleges to assume they are equitably funding and providing resources and programs—and we all know some of the negative assumptions associated with assuming. Furthermore, more complete student demographic information will allow university officials to better track graduation rates, re-evaluate academic course offerings, and promote new student housing and programming options.

One of the biggest arguments against the addition of inquiries regarding sexual orientation involves questions of applicant privacy. Many schools are quick to note that applicants may not feel comfortable truthfully answering a question concerning sexual orientation while still in high school; others make note that the inclusion of such questions somehow takes away from the serious nature of college applications.

The latter of these two arguments is pure malarkey; college applications are already asking less than serious questions about a student’s possible interest in a Quiddich club, for example. And, while the former does have some merit—I, myself, would not have felt comfortable disclosing that type of information at that particular time in my life—the very fact that there IS such a question sends a message of inclusion to “closeted” high school students throughout the nation.

So, what does the future look like concerning questions regarding sexual orientation on college applications and what housing preference forms look like? For now, the Common Application board has condemned its member institutions to be denied this useful information when, in late 2011, it rejected a proposal to incorporate sexual orientation. I, however, agree with University of California Academic Senate Chair Robert Anderson’s comments that “sexual orientation is a part of diversity and cannot be ignored” any longer (Caldwell, 2012, p. 1).

In short, the sooner colleges and universities begin to respectfully and confidentially collect data concerning sexual orientation, the sooner valuable (and increasingly scarce) resources can be allocated toward LGBT-oriented programming and organizations.

Andrew E. Bunting is an Admissions Counselor at George Mason University.

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