At many colleges, it's a standard part of the recruiting process once applicants are admitted. Current students who share individual traits or academic interests help reach out to prospective students with similar backgrounds or interests. So the young woman who expresses an interest in engineering will hear from a female junior in engineering. A black admit might hear from a black student, and so forth. The idea is that these students may be uniquely well positioned to answer questions and to make the case that the college is a good place to be a female engineer, a black undergrad, or whatever.
This year, the University of Pennsylvania is applying the idea to admitted applicants who are gay. Several experts on college admissions say that they do not know of any other colleges that have taken this step. [Update: In comments below, an official of Dartmouth College describes such an effort there.] Outreach to gay applicants is different in some key ways from outreach based on academic interests or race and ethnicity. Typically, applications ask about academic interests and race and ethnicity (although that question is optional), and no colleges are known to ask applicants about their sexual orientation.
And while Penn has found ways to reach out to admitted applicants who are gay without asking the question, some advocates for gay and lesbian students are starting to talk about pushing colleges to add such a question (as an option). One group is preparing to petition the Common Application to do so.
Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at Penn, characterizes the effort there not as something special for admitted gay applicants, but as doing for them what the university already does for many other groups of students. "We are speaking to students on the areas that they are most interested in," he said.
Penn is identifying gay admits through information they provide on their applications -- groups that they are members of, or statements they make about themselves in their essays. One question on the Penn application asks applicants about the communities they would like to be active in at the university, and the answers include academic interests, social and cultural organizations, and -- for some students -- gay life at the university.
Furda said that an admitted applicant wouldn't be identified on the basis of one stand-alone fact, such as membership in a gay-straight alliance at a high school, given how many people are members of such groups these days. The university is looking for admitted applicants who have indicated in some way that gay issues are very important in their considerations.
For those looking for a campus that is supportive of its gay students and has many activities for them, Penn is "an exceptional place," Furda said. So having members of the Lambda Alliance, the umbrella gay group on campus, reach out to prospective students should only help Penn enroll more of those it has admitted, he said.
In the digital era, he said, it is common for admitted applicants to "do their own due diligence" on whatever issues they care about, Furda said. But just as Penn tries "to be proactive" about reaching other groups, it wants to reach out to those who are looking for a gay-friendly campus.
Furda said he didn't know of any other college adopting such a policy; officials of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Common Application also said that they were not aware of any other college that is doing outreach of this sort.
Jack Miner, who is the chair of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Caucus of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he hadn't heard of anyone doing this either, and that he thought it was "a great idea" and a welcome move by Penn.
"In just the same way that honors students may like to hear from other honors students, or black students from other black students, gay and lesbian students want to hear what a campus has to offer from the perspective of the gay and lesbian community," said Miner, associate registrar at Ohio State University. While colleges can point to Web pages or provide official information, "speaking to someone who knows this firsthand could make a huge difference for students deciding where to go."
Miner said that while Penn has found a way to identify applicants without asking them about their sexual orientation, a big topic of discussion in the AACRAO gay caucus has been the question of whether colleges should add an optional question on sexual orientation so that colleges can reach out in other ways. He said that many people in the caucus believe that "the culture has changed" such that self-identifying as gay wouldn't be "perceived as a negative" as might have been the case for previous generations. He said that there is considerable interest about seeing some college ask the question but "schools are hesitant to be the first."
Shane L. Windmeyer, the founder of Campus Pride, a national group that works on behalf of gay students, also applauded Penn's move and said that his organization is preparing to ask the Common Application to add a voluntary question about sexual orientation. Windmeyer's organization sponsors college fairs at which gay high school students can meet representatives of colleges, and he noted that such events provide another way for colleges to reach the gay population.
He said Penn's approach represented an "institutionalization" of a commitment to viewing gay students as part of the broader campus population.
Further, he said that his group will be asking the Common Application to add a sexual orientation question so that colleges can refine recruiting techniques and also consider the diversity of their applicant pools in the same way they do now based on race and ethnicity, gender, geography and academics. "I think any type of question [on sexual orientation] should be voluntary, but at the same time, the absence of the question ultimately determines how those identities are treated, so the fact that you don't ask about sexual orientation leaves a question about your commitment to that population," he said.
He said that the question should be asked, just as it is asked about other issues. "Gay people are part of the diversity and fabric of an institution."
The Common Application will be approached, he said, because some campus admissions officials, when asked about the idea, said that they were sympathetic but used the Common Application, and would go with the question if it is adopted there.
Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, said he wasn't sure how the board would respond. He noted, however, that the nearly 400 colleges that are members all must abide by the group's nondiscrimination statement, which covers sexual orientation. So if there are hesitations, he said, they will not be from colleges that don't want to admit gay students.
Killion said that the issue he thought might be of concern -- even for an optional question -- would be the stress on applicants. "Members might worry that applicants might worry about how the information would be used, and wonder whether or not they should answer the question."
But Killion added that members might also see value in a question. "I know we would have a substantial number of members who would be interested in statistics and tracking the kind of outreach Penn is now doing, and they might find that a very compelling argument to add a question," he said.