Asking More Than Male or Female

The Common Application is considering adding voluntary questions about applicants' sexual orientation and gender identity. The application is used by hundreds of colleges and universities -- including many of the most competitive.

August 12, 2010

The Common Application is considering adding voluntary questions about applicants' sexual orientation and gender identity. The application is used by hundreds of colleges and universities -- including many of the most competitive.

The current norm in higher education is not to ask such questions, even on a voluntary basis. But with more students coming out in high school, and with some colleges explicitly taking steps to recruit gay applicants, some admissions officers and some advocates for gay students want to encourage colleges to ask the questions. But the possible switch could be controversial. The Common Application has conducted a nonbinding survey of its members and -- while not releasing results -- has indicated that the membership is split. (The association's board will decide the question.)

The current Common Application simply gives two choices -- male or female -- on gender. Common Application officials have stressed that they will continue to ask that question, and to specify that applicants should check the box consistent with their birth certificates. That's because colleges use some of the demographic data collected to meet federal reporting requirements, and single-sex institutions need to know that applicants are eligible for admission.

On the issue of sexual orientation, one proposal under consideration would feature a drop-down menu that would let students select gay/lesbian, bisexual, straight/heterosexual or "another identity" that could be listed. Another approach -- if the organization adds a question on sexual orientation -- is to simply provide a free text field and ask the question about orientation.

On the issue of gender identity, the Common Application is considering options that would explain why the male/female question must be asked consistent with federal reporting requirements, but which would then go on to tell applicants that if there is a word that better describes their identity beyond male or female, they are welcome to add that.

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Shane L. Windmeyer, the founder of Campus Pride, a national group that works on behalf of gay students and sponsors college fairs at which gay students can meet college representatives, said it was past time for colleges to add such questions. "It is 2010," he said. "Colleges should take responsibility for their LGBT students at the front end of the admissions process. We have students from across the country who are already out when they apply, and this should just be part of the process. There is no reason these students should be invisible when it comes to applying for college."

Campus Pride and the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals are among the groups that have been urging the Common Application to add the questions.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that "the more data that can be collected, the more that can be done with it," and he stressed that admissions officials use demographic data to recruit students and improve student services.

Most public discussion of the demographic boxes students check on college applications focuses on affirmative action, but most colleges are not terribly competitive in admissions so it is much more common for colleges to use the information for tracking and recruitment purposes. So colleges will pay attention to trends in applications and enrollments from a range of groups that they consider important for various reasons, and ask why so few female engineers enroll, for instance, or why an institution has gained popularity with Texans. Likewise colleges use demographic information to reach out to students -- before admissions decisions have been made -- to tell them about programs and services for various groups.

Hawkins stressed that admissions officers would support asking only those questions "that promote understanding and nondiscrimination." (The Common Application has a strict anti-bias policy that includes sexual orientation.) He said he could see the possible questions as a good way for some high school students to find out whether colleges will be welcoming. "The more we can offer openness and comfort for all students, the better," he said.

He also said he thought the Common Application had enough clout that a move by it in this direction could likely influence other institutions. (The Common Application has a competitor, the Universal College Application, with fewer members, and that group has indicated that it would consider adding questions, too, if members expressed support.)

Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, said that comments members have sent in for consideration by the association's board are confidential, so he couldn't release them. But generally, he said that those with concerns about adding the voluntary questions have cited issues from the applicants' perspective: "Would the student feel pressure to answer? Would the student worry how this information would be used? Would the student worry who had access to this information? Would the student worry that a negative decision was in part because of their answer?"

He said that those writing in favor of the questions also "typically cited the benefits for the student," such as "targeted recruiting efforts, campus diversity efforts, funding for adequate campus resources, etc."


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