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The University of Iowa is today announcing the addition of an optional question on sexual orientation, and a transgender choice under gender, as part of an effort to make its undergraduate application one that sends a welcoming signal to all students -- and to gather information about the institution's success at attracting and retaining students who aren't straight.

To date, only Elmhurst College has such questions on an undergraduate application (although some colleges include gay/straight alliances among the list of student groups in which a prospective applicant may express interest). But Iowa will be the first public institution to add the question to its application about student identity, not interest. While colleges routinely ask about applicants' racial and ethnic background, among other topics, they have until now shied away from asking about sexual orientation, even as some gay rights advocates have pushed them to do so. (One private graduate school, the Adler School of Professional Psychology, asks applicants “Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBTQ -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer -- community?”)

Advocates see Iowa's move as significant, given that it is a flagship university. "This is a huge deal in that it shows any campus that it can do the same thing," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, which promotes the interests of gay and lesbian students in the college admissions process and once enrolled.

Two changes have been made to the Iowa application. Under the gender question, a dropdown menu now includes transgender along with male and female. And in a series of optional questions about parents' educational background, interest in fraternities and sororities, interest in Reserve Officers Training Corps and other matters, Iowa now asks: "Do you identify with the LGBTQ community?”

Windmeyer and others have been pushing colleges to adopt such questions, arguing that just as colleges reach out to minority students with information they may find useful, and just as colleges track trends in applications and enrollment rates of minority groups, gay applicants deserve such consideration. To date, however, Elmhurst has been alone in accepting the argument. Last year, the Common Application rejected a proposal that it add questions similar to those Iowa has now added.

Jake Christensen, the senior admission counselor at Iowa who brought the idea forward, said that as a gay undergraduate at the university, he found an "open and accepting environment." But after he graduated and started working in admissions, he said he realized that "there was no targeted recruitment of LGBT students."

He said that including transgender as a gender option and asking about gay identity won't force anyone to do anything -- applicants can just skip the questions. But he said that those who do identify in those ways -- some of whom may never have felt supported before -- receive a message. "For some students, this may be the first time in their lives that an institution has exhibited a sensitivity to diversity, and has sent a welcoming message" on these issues, he said. And for those who are straight and identify with traditional gender choices, they will learn something about others. "This is an opportunity to educate people" as they read the application, Christensen said. "We are telling people that this is a place with respect for all kinds of students."

Iowa officials discussed the idea of adding the admissions question with gay students, and received strong support. Quentin Hill, a political science major who is chair of the main group for gay students and is secretary of the gay fraternity that is forming on campus, said he thought the idea of adding the questions was "phenomenal." He said that Iowa is a great place to be a gay student, but that many students arrive unaware of the resources available. He would like to see students contacted earlier, and told about the options.

When the Common Application decided against adding optional questions about sexual orientation, it issued a statement that said in part: "One common worry was that any potential benefits to adding the question would be outweighed by the anxiety and uncertainty students may experience when deciding if and how they should answer it."

Hill said he viewed that as "an excuse," and not one that was valid. He noted that applicants who are not members of minority groups aren't deterred by colleges asking them if they are, and that Iowa applicants manage to indicate that they are interested in ROTC or fraternities without any difficulty, just as those without any interest simply move on. "This is no different from when race is asked on an application."

Stef Shuster, a transgender Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Iowa, said that there were both "symbolic and tangible" benefits to the shift. A clear message of support is sent by including these questions and options, Shuster said.

But at most colleges, there are no efforts to track whether the institution is attracting applications, admitting, enrolling or graduating students of differing sexual orientations or gender identities, Shuster said. "To look at retention rates and other issues, you have to have data."

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