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Elmhurst College asks prospective students about sexual orientation

Elmhurst College 4-year private liberal arts school western suburbs makes history by being first university country ask students about their

Elmhurst College, the 4-year private liberal arts school in the western suburbs, makes history by being the first university in the country to ask students about their sexual identity (LGBT) on admissions applications. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 4, 2011 9:18AM

Elmhurst College officials weren’t looking to blaze trails when they added to their admission application: “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?”

With that one line, though, they became the first college in the country to ask potential students directly about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Increasing diversity is part of our mission statement,” said Gary Rold, Elmhurst’s dean of admissions. “This is simply closing the 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 will appear on applications for those freshman and transfer students hoping to start in the fall of 2012. Like admissions questions about race, ethnicity or religion, answering the question is completely optional and does not affect admission decisions. Students can check “yes,” “no,” or “prefer not to answer.”

Those who answer “yes” may be eligible for a scholarship worth up to one-third of tuition, not unusual because about 60 percent of incoming students receive some type of scholarship aid, Rold said. More importantly, he said, knowing students’ sexual orientation will help officials direct incoming students toward services or groups that might help them make an easier 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.”

At a handful of other universities, there are admissions procedures that might identify LGBT student applicants. At Dartmouth College, for example, students can check boxes of activities that might interest them, including LGBT-centered activities. At the University of Pennsylvania, students who write in their application essay that they are gay can be paired with a mentor.

Elmhurst, though, is the first college in the country to directly ask students about their sexual orientation. The private, liberal arts school in its namesake suburb has 3,300 undergraduate students and is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

“It is kind of a pleasant surprise that Elmhurst College in Illinois is the first campus to ask an identity question,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the national nonprofit Campus Pride. “Some of the leaders in college admissions have done similar stuff but never asked the question.”

Windmeyer thinks it’s an important question to ask and doubts anyone would lie about being gay to get a scholarship. He also does not think being gay or lesbian would be an advantage in the competitive college admissions process.

“It’s important that these youth have a way to express their sexual identity, like their racial identity,” he said. “Colleges ask those questions so they can give them the resources to get them to be successful.”

Rold said he knows some students will bristle at the question, as they do at questions about race and ethnicity.

And while the question might attract more applicants, he thinks that number will balance out with students who do not apply because of the question.

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