Students applying to Elmhurst College in Illinois next fall will face a brand new question on their admissions application: "Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?"
The question, which is optional, makes the small, private liberal arts school the first in the nation to directly ask prospective students about their sexual orientation, and is part of an effort to aid in outreach to LGBT students.
"Increasing diversity is part of our mission statement," Gary Rold, Elmhurst's dean of admissions, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "This is simply closing a loop, in many ways, of another group who has a very strong identity. It may not be race and religion but it's an important part of who they are."
The question appears on a page that also asks students about their religious affiliation and if they speak a language other than English at home. Students have the option of responding "yes," "no" or "prefer not to answer." Their answers will not affect admissions decisions, although students who check "yes" may be eligible for a scholarship worth up to one-third of tuition -- not unusual, Rold said, because about 60 percent of incoming students receive some scholarship aid.
The most important thing, Rold told the Sun-Times, is that knowing students' sexual orientations will help school officials steer them toward programs that can help with the transition to college life.
"We try really hard to take good care of students, have them graduate and be successful citizens in the world," he said. "The only way you do that is to meet people where they really are."
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of national nonprofit Campus Pride, called it a "pleasant surprise" that Elmhurst, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, is the first college to directly ask about identity. Other schools allow students to check boxes indicating participation in LGBT organizations or to write about LGBT-centered activities in application essays.
"It's important that these youth have a way to express their sexual identity, like their racial identity," Windmeyer said. "Colleges ask those questions so they can give them the resources to get them to be successful."
In January, the Common Application, which allows prospective students to apply to more than 400 member schools using just one application, rejected a proposal to add optional questions about gender identity and sexual orientation to its application. At the time, the organization said it could cause students "anxiety and uncertainty" about how to answer, even if it was optional.
Rold told the Sun-Times he expects some students to bristle at the new question, just as they do about questions regarding race and ethnicity. If there are students who choose not to apply as a result of the question, he said he thinks that number will balance out with students who apply specifically because of it.