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At gatherings of admissions officials, there is much talk about students who suffer discrimination or other hardships and how colleges should help them to enroll. But as Greg McCandless noted Friday at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, there is a group that "people were not talking about" -- gay applicants.

While there have always been gay college students, they were invisible in the admissions process in previous generations. College don't ask students their sexual orientations, but McCandless, associate director of admission at Harvey Mudd College, said that a small but growing number of students come out during the admissions process -- raising the question of how colleges should consider that information. Everyone who spoke at a session about gay applicants in the admissions process  agreed that the students should not be discriminated against for revealing this information. The more controversial question was whether they should receive the sort of affirmative action boost that some other groups receive at many institutions.

"I think there's a case to be made" that gay students should receive such assistance, McCandless said, although he acknowledged that the issue was a tricky one.

Middlebury College is this year for the first time giving students who identify themselves as gay in the admissions process an "attribute" -- the same flagging of an application that members of ethnic minority groups, athletes, alumni children and others receive, according to Shawn Rae Passalacqua, assistant director of admissions at Middlebury. His announcement surprised many of those who attended the session, and who said that they had never heard of a college having such a policy. (Officials of the Point Foundation, a group that provides scholarships to gay students, especially those denied financial support from their families, said that they had never heard of such a policy.)

Passalacqua said that gay students bring "a unique quality" to the college, which he said tries hard not "to be too homogeneous." Of 6,200 applications last year, 5 students noted their gay identities in their application essays and another 50-plus applicants cited their membership in gay-straight alliances. Passalacaqua said that Middlebury admissions officers were also likely to look favorably and give an admissions tip to "straight allies" of gay students -- not just out of support for that view, but because a college benefits from having people who are "bridge builders."

Several guidance counselors at the session said that they wanted to know what to tell their gay students who want to either write essays about their sexuality, or to make passing references to a love interest or crush in a way that would reveal the information. Panelists uniformly said that this information no longer hurts. And while no one matched Middlebury's policy, an official of Claremont McKenna College said that he hoped his college would follow, and an admissions officer of Loyola University New Orleans said students shouldn't feel they need to hold back their identities when applying to Jesuit colleges.

Mark Rasic, Western regional representative for Loyola, said that applicants shouldn't assume that religious colleges don't have many gay students. He said that the student newspaper at his institution recently interviewed admissions officers on whether the reason women can't find dates on the campus is that so many gay men are enrolled.

Central to the discussion at the admissions meeting was the question of how the experiences of gay and lesbian high school students are similar to -- or different from -- those of other groups that receive admissions boosts of one kind or another. McCandless reviewed statistics about the harassment that most gay students receive in high school -- and the lack of support many of them receive from family members or teachers. A series of studies have found that gay students -- and students perceived to be gay -- can experience both verbal and physical abuse, typically daily, and that this abuse can have an educational impact, as students may be more likely to miss school because of being the victim of bullying.

But citing himself as an example, McCandless said he didn't come out in high school, had a good high school experience, and didn't experience anti-gay bigotry there. "Should I have gotten special treatment?" he asked.

And then there is the practical question of how colleges would respond if word got out that being gay could help your chances of getting into a good college. "What if people just start to say, 'Hey, I'm gay.' Are we going to follow them around for a semester?" McCandless said.

High school counselors in the audience had many questions for the college officials. One said that he wasn't sure what to do with his gay students who are out, but who aren't particularly involved in gay organizations. "How gay do you have to be" to include it  on an application, and hope for help, he asked?

This counselor, who is black, also said he had some ambivalence about this latest admissions trend. Of being black, he said, "I can't hide that fact." But he said that many gay applicants can in fact apply to college and get in -- without any concerns about discrimination -- because they need not reveal their sexuality.

Another high school counselor who said that she is currently working with one transgendered student and two lesbians applying for college said that her concern is that these students have dealt with issues related to their sexuality at such early ages that "it is a non-issue for them." Should she be encouraging them to draw attention to their sexuality if they are not particularly focused on it? she asked.

Passalacqua of Middlebury said that he would never pressure any high school student to out him or herself in the process if the person didn't want to. But he said that there is a part of the admissions process that is like "a game" in which people are trying to draw attention to the special qualities they bring to a campus. If athletes and people from remote regions are getting a boost, he said, gay students should, too -- and they need to identify themselves in order to benefit.

Another high school counselor said that there was another reason to encourage gay applicants to mention their orientation. If they are denied admission for being gay, it was probably not a good college for the applicants to attend anyway, this counselor said. She said this was just a new application of an old principle of college counseling -- that students and institutions need a good fit. She said that the question gay high school students should consider about college is the same question straight students should think about: "Where are you going to be happy?"

Bruce Lindstrom, interim executive director and founder of the Point Foundation, the group that provides scholarships to gay students, said it was important for colleges to reach out to gay students, but he stopped short of saying that they should get an affirmative action push in admissions.

"The key to me is:  If a university wants to 'broaden' the understanding of students, then students must be exposed to a diversity of humanity that is meritorious to a balanced and tolerant society," he said. "Students must still qualify academically, but diversity of society is part of understanding society."

At the same time, he added: "We think our scholars can stand alone on their academic acceptance and that they are not in need of 'special consideration.' But also, it is not appropriate to be 'selected out' because of admission biases by the admission committee.  Bigotry should not be an acceptable reason for non-admission."

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