Last week the University of Iowa added an optional question to its application for undergraduate admission: "Do you identify with the LGBTQ Community?" The university has also given applicants a third gender option, allowing prospective undergraduates and graduate students to identify themselves as "transgender" instead of "male" or "female."
With those changes, Iowa becomes the first public university—and only the second college in the United States—to ask applicants about their sexual orientation and gender identity, a practice some gay-rights advocates predict will soon be common. For now, admissions officers on many campuses continue to weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks of such questions, which some teenagers might welcome, but others may not.
The application for admission is meant to tell colleges about students, but Iowa's move affirms that it is also a way to transmit messages to applicants. Officials at Iowa believe the new questions will allow them to better serve gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, as well as those who are questioning their sexual identity.
"We think this will cause them to look more closely at the university because we value that part of who they are," said Michael Barron, assistant provost for enrollment management. "We want students to feel we are receptive to and sensitive to their lifestyle and their description of themselves."
The question about identifying with the LGBTQ community appears in a section of other optional questions about family connections to the university, parents' educational background, and applicants' interest in ROTC programs and Greek organizations. The new question will play no role in admissions decisions, Mr. Barron said. Iowa plans to use it only to connect students with information.
Applicants who answer yes will receive e-mails with links to campus groups and resources. Those who end up enrolling will get additional messages, said Georgina Dodge, the university's chief diversity officer. Those might include information about LGBT student organizations, scholarship opportunities for gay and lesbian students, and invitations to participate in diversity training.
"What we've heard from students, especially LGBT students, is that they don't find out about support services and organizations until they've been here for a year or two, unfortunately," Ms. Dodge said. "This allows us to do some more personal outreach."
'A Gentler Way'
Last year, Elmhurst College, in Illinois, added a similar question (also optional) to its application: "Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community?" Iowa does not pose the question so directly: To say you "identify" with the LGBT community doesn't necessarily mean you belong to it.
Jake Christensen, a senior admissions counselor at Iowa and a graduate of the university, first suggested the idea of asking any question at all. He described Iowa's approach as more "open ended" than Elmhurst's. Mr. Christensen, who is gay, grew up in a rural town in southwest Iowa, the kind of place, he said, where LGBT teenagers are unlikely to think of themselves as members of the gay community.
"We wanted to word the question in a way that seemed welcoming," he said. "If you ask someone point-blank, 'Are you gay?,' you can kind of turn them off, especially if they're not open about it. This is a gentler way."
Mr. Christensen coordinates LGBT-friendly college fairs sponsored by Campus Pride, a national advocacy group. Shane L. Windmeyer, its executive director, advised Iowa officials as they considered adopting a sexual-orientation question. Any such addition, he believes, would make a campus seem more welcoming. "We were pleased with this question because it hits on identity," he said. "That's key for us."
Over the next decade, Mr. Windmeyer predicts, many colleges will adopt similar questions to track retention and graduation of LGBT students. Although Iowa officials hope to do that down the road, the optional question might tell them only so much. After all, some LGBT students will choose not to answer it. And a student who answers yes based on support of LGBT peers, may, in fact, be straight.
In the near term, the fact that a high-profile university—in the nation's heartland, no less—has adopted such questions may prompt other colleges to follow suit. Still, the issue remains thorny. At least a dozen prominent colleges have privately considered adding optional questions about LGBT identity, and some have decided against it. An admissions officer at one such institution, who was not permitted to speak on behalf of her university, said, "The question was, Why would we ask this? If it's just to send a message, that's what marketing's for. An application is supposed to be a record of academic achievement."
Last year the Common Application's board of directors weighed adding an optional question about applicants' sexual orientation. After much discussion and research, the board decided against it, citing concerns among admissions officers and college counselors.
According to the board's final resolution, one worry was the "anxiety and uncertainty students may experience when deciding how or if they should answer." The board also noted that the Common Application's drop-down list of activities, which includes "LGBT," allows colleges to search for students who have identified themselves with LGBT advocacy.
Recently, Susan Tree, director of college counseling at the Westtown School, in West Chester, Pa., asked several LGBT students what they would think if colleges inquired about their sexual orientation. Awkward and inappropriate, they told her. They were wary of being labeled, she said.
In Ms. Tree's experience, some teenagers consider their sexual orientation a defining characteristic, while others see it as just one detail in their life stories. And what one applicant may know already, another might have just begun to explore. "Not everybody shares the same context for this question," she said. "For some kids, this would be extremely affirming, and for others, this would be very intimidating."
That's the great and challenging truth that admissions officers must confront all the time: Each applicant is different.