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Question in Question

Is it harmful or beneficial to ask the controversial question?

Elizabeth Hoyt

December 18, 2012

Question in Question
The recent adoption of questions involving an applicant’s sexual orientation and gender identity on college applications finds controversy among admissions. MIT, the University of Iowa, Adler School of Professional Psychology and Elmhurst College are among the institutions beginning to ask applicants about their sexual orientation. It’s important to remember that institutions shouldn't ask questions because it’s “hip”—the information obtained should have value in designing a student’s academic experience. The admissions departments must also understand their campus’s environment for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer) students before asking any applicants about their sexual and gender identities.

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Most applications also spell out that answering will in no way negatively impact any admissions decision; just connect potential students with resources and information. For example, MIT offers an optional question asking, “How would you describe your sexual orientation/gender identity?” The answers listed as options are “lesbian,” “gay,” “straight/heterosexual,” “unsure,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” “prefer not to answer,” and “another identity,” with an option to write his or her own depiction. MIT explains and justifies asking about gender identity and sexual orientation in saying, “At MIT, we know that people are more than just a set of grades and scores on a screen. So we use a holistic admissions process which entails understanding as much about you as we can, and the context from which you have shaped, both as a person and a student. The information from the application provides the pieces that help us to create a picture of you.”

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Illinois’ Elmhurst College poses a more direct question. The application asks, “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community?
The University of Iowa's option question reads, “Do you identify with the LGBTQ Community?” The university’s tactic is to pose the question gently since asking one if they “identify” does not necessarily mean they are a part of it, in hopes to be more welcoming. It’s believed to be a more inviting question because it relates to identity, rather than a stark definition of sexuality or gender.

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In addition, the university added “transgender” to the traditional “male” and “female” options. The applicants who respond with a “yes” will be opted into receiving information regarding related campus organizations and other resources such as LGBTQ scholarship opportunities. The negative aspect of asking a question involving identity is that students who are not necessarily LGBTQ but identify with the community as peers may answer yes to the question and throw off the university’s information and data tracking. The University of Iowa admissions department believes that this will also show students that the university is sensitive to their feelings and the question’s inclusion on the application will allow them to better serve students within the LGBTQ community. Many gay rights activists believe this will move from a trend to a common practice on applications, though the practice is still being weighed in terms of sensitivity. It is, however, beneficial for educational institutions to gather information on their applications to learn admissions and graduate rates of students within the LGBTQ community. The Common Application, an undergraduate college application used for nearly 500 universities, has reviewed the thought of adding a similar optional question about sexual identity. Their board of directors decided against adding the question based on concerns from counselors and other admissions officers. The board cited their decision was based on the “anxiety and uncertainty students may experience when deciding how or if they should answer.” This makes sense given the age of applicants. Many teenagers are not yet certain of their identities and, given the question, could feel very overwhelmed and intimidated. Studies found that many students were not even able to answer the question honestly since a parent or guardian was looking over his or her shoulder. Since each applicant is an individual with different life situations, the benefits must outweigh the potential worries before incorporating a major change in the application. Additionally, some question the point of adding the question on an application form, since the purpose is to reflect academic achievement. If a school wants to get a message across, there are other ways of communicating through various marketing and public relations tools. There have also been concerns that an applicant may answer the question dishonestly in order to qualify for LGBTQ scholarships, though there haven’t been issues of that reported at the various participating schools. Would you feel comfortable answering questions regarding gender identity or sexual orientation on college applications?

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