It's common for college applications to have optional questions in which would-be students may indicate their race or ethnicity. In what experts believe to be a first, Elmhurst College has released a new undergraduate application that includes an optional question about sexual orientation and gender identity status.
Admitted students who indicate when applying that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered will be eligible for a diversity scholarship worth one-third of tuition.
Advocates for gay students have been encouraging colleges -- thus far without success -- to add such questions. In January, the board of the Common Application discussed and rejected  the idea. To date, the closest some colleges have come is to include phrases like "LGBT community" in lists of possible student interests and activities that they might check off -- a check that could indicate support for gay rights or interest in gay issues without requiring a personal declaration about one's identity.
The question at Elmhurst appears in a small group of optional questions, following this introduction: "Elmhurst College is committed to diversity and connecting underrepresented students with valuable resources on campus. The following questions are optional."
Then, after a space where students can indicate a religious affiliation, they are asked: "Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?"
Gary Rold, dean of admission at Elmhurst, said that the question was added as part of a commitment to "looking at diversity in all of its forms." He said that the college can only know if it is attracting and admitting gay applicants if it asks the question, just as it asks about other demographic categories. "How do we know who we are attracting if we don't ask?"
The "enrichment scholarship" is awarded to those who are admitted and who are members of an underrepresented group. LGBT students will now be considered such a group. Rold noted that the definition of diversity has always been broad, including, for example, international students. With the new question, this will be the first year that students can qualify for the scholarship by virtue of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Elmhurst -- a liberal arts college in Illinois, affiliated with the United Church of Christ -- admits around 65 percent of applicants, and does not anticipate using sexual orientation as a factor in admissions decisions.
When the Common Application rejected the idea of adding questions on sexual orientation or gender identity, the organization's board issued a statement saying that "many admission officers and secondary school counselors expressed concern regarding how this question might be perceived by students, even though it would be optional. 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."
Elmhurst is not a member of the Common Application. Rold said that he didn't want to criticize the approach taken by that group. "If I were in the business of creating a 70-item questionnaire to satisfy the needs of hundreds of institutions, I would find that a daunting task," he said.
But he rejected the idea that the question will add stress. Rold noted that some students feel strongly about answering questions about race or religion, and some don't like to answer such questions. Regardless, he said, students seem to make their decisions without difficulty. "I think students who don't want to answer it simply won't answer it. That's O.K.," he said.
He asked why gay and transgender students shouldn't have the same choice as members of other groups to decide whether to self-identify. "Now gay and lesbian students will have the same option," he said. "We thought we should give them the option. It seems fair and consistent."
Elmhurst's move was praised by Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a group that advocates for gay students. “For the first time, an American college has taken efforts to identify LGBT students from the very first moment those students have official contact with them," he said. The new question "is definite progress in the right direction."