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To Ask or Not to Ask: LGBT Identity on College Admission Forms

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Still today, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) college students are invisible. If you ask a college to identify its LGBT students, they usually mention the students in their club or campus group, or possibly select leaders on campus who are out. The assumption, which is wrong, is that all out LGBT college students are part of the club or involved in campus activities.

Colleges and universities are responsible for the education and safety of all students, including their LGBT students. A school cannot provide necessary services or maintain proper safety and campus climate without first knowing who are the out LGBT students attending their school. Demographic questions asking students about their sexual orientation and gender identity give university administrators the data they need to properly implement LGBT-inclusive policies and practices.

In order to best serve the needs of out LGBT college students, it is imperative that colleges and universities give these students the option to self-identify on the college admission form. This way the campus can take responsibility for the LGBT student experience, their academic retention, safety, and success from the beginning. For a long time, colleges have done this in regard to race/ethnicity, religion, and other optional demographics on college admission forms.

The decision not to ask out LGBT students to self-identify is alarming when national research shares that nearly a quarter of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth encounter harassment on college campuses, and for trans youth that percentage of harassment is even higher. Such bias and harmful experiences can lead to a higher dropout rate and negatively impact their academic success and/or other health and well-being issues on campus. But we wouldn't know this -- because colleges don't ask and, as a result, are not held accountable to LGBT students.

Campus Pride, the nation's leading national nonprofit for LGBT and ally college students, initially proposed the inclusion of a LGBT identity question on the college admission form in fall 2007, when launching its national benchmarking tool, the LGBT-friendly Campus Climate Index.

In January 2011 a proposal to add LGBT identity questions to the Common Application, a national organization representing a few hundred colleges and their admission process, was denied. The proposal by Campus Pride and Common Application institutional members had requested the addition of such questions to their national application. The Common Application cited as the reason for denying the request their concern over the "anxiety and uncertainty students may experience when deciding if and how they should answer it." Research by the Williams Institute contradicts this concern, noting that demographic questions on sexual identity do not negatively impact young adults on questionnaires.

Despite the Common Application denial, Campus Pride continued to further advocate nationally for this issue on a campus-by-campus basis, working with various colleges that had been attending the organization's national college fair program for LGBT-friendly colleges.

This past year, in fall 2011, Elmhurst College, located right outside Chicago, Ill., became the first college or university in the United States to add an optional LGBT identity question to their undergraduate admissions application. In the first semester of applications, 5 percent of applicants voluntarily identified themselves as LGBT, and 90 percent of applicants answered the question. Campus Pride issued a national statement celebrating the historic move by Elmhurst College to add the optional identity question.

Since the decision by Elmhurst College, the Common Application's concern regarding applicants' potential "anxiety and uncertainty" seems to be moot. More colleges like Harvard University, Duke University, and Yale School of Law have all been reported as considering the addition of an optional LGBT identity question on their college admission forms.

Most recently, the University of California Academic Senate and Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools passed their recommendation to allow incoming students to identify their sexual orientation and gender identity. The questions, which are planned to be optional, will allow university administrators and staff to more adequately prepare for and serve the needs of LGBT students on their campus. The LGBT demographic questions will appear on the University of California's Statement of Intent to Register (SIR) forms. The question was also recently approved to appear on forms within California's Cal State and community college systems.

Colleges and universities that claim to be LGBT-friendly have nothing lose by asking this optional identity question on the college admission forms. Instead, these colleges have everything to gain by being more aware and accountable to the out LGBT student population.

Campus Pride continues to work with nearly a dozen other colleges on the addition of such a question and predicts that there will be more campuses to adopt LGBT identity questions in the near future. The decision for California schools is currently waiting on the approval of University of California Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Lawrence H. Pitts.

Simply asking the question sends a strong message of inclusion and visibility. We forget that what is on our forms sends signals to our students on what is accepted and included, and, moreover, what is important to the campus. This optional LGBT identity question on the college admission form serves the needs of the out LGBT student but also has a greater impact, sending a message of inclusion and diversity to the entire campus community.

The time is now to be visible. Share this article and ask your college admissions office to begin conversations on this timely issue. Institutions of higher education should be held responsible for student safety, retention, and academic success of every student -- the addition of identity questions to the college admission form finally make this possible for LGBT students.