The University of Iowa is to become the first to ask prospective students if they are LGBT on application forms.

Adding the non-obligatory question on sexuality and a transgender option under gender on its undergraduate application forms, the university is hoping to welcome more students from the LGBT community, and obtain more information on its ability to attract and retain students who aren’t straight.

The first public university to give students the chance to self-identify, Iowa is following Elmhurst College’s of Illinois’s example; which began asking students on their applications forms in 2011 and reported that 5% voluntarily ticked that they were gay, bisexual or trans. This significant decision, for an institution that enrols 30,000 and is considered flagship, has been praised by Campus Pride. The LGBT organisation’s executive director, Shane Windmeye, said: “This is a huge deal in that it shows any campus it can do the same thing” – and could make the Common Application board (which has 414 members, many of which are the most prestigious colleges in the US) re-evaluate their decision to not include such questions.

University of Iowa

Whilst the option to identify as transgender may reduce pressure for applicants that feel uneasy selecting ‘male’ or ‘female’ in the dropdown box, adding the optional question “Do you identify with the LGBTQ community?” could in fact result in prospective applicants feeling they need to face unanswered, difficult questions about their own identity. As many students often wait until they are in the safe, welcoming environment of university to come out, this added question to the form has the potential to cause unease amongst those who are unsure or have not yet had the opportunity or support to explore their association with the gay or bisexual community and may not wish to label themselves before they begin the move away from home to study. The Common Application justified its decision to not ask applicants: “One common worry was that any potential benefits to adding the question would be outweighed by the anxiety and uncertainty students may experience when deciding if and how they should answer it.”

However, Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Georgina Dodge claims: “Asking LGBTQ students to identify themselves demonstrates that we value this aspect of identity just as we value the other categories for which students check boxes.” It can’t be denied that sexuality and gender identifications are relatively absent in comparison to ethnicity questions, and perhaps it is time these questions were given more precedence. Yet, selecting your ethnicity on a form – something visible and somewhat guessable –only provides institutions and employers with data that is otherwise obvious, but answering a question on your sexuality is more personal, intrusive and students may not yet have their answer. It may be that a large proportion of those who go on to identify as LGB once at university won’t even be able to answer this question so early on, in their application forms. Will it be effective? Ignoring the question also doesn’t mean students will be able to brush over it and not worry about their inability to answer it, although at the same time it “has sent a welcoming message” as it shows sexuality being taken seriously and in confidentiality.

The Senior Admissions Counsellor, Jake Christensen, put the idea forward after he realised that “there was no targeted recruitment of LGBT students.” He says the move is positive as “For some students, this may be the first time in their lives that an institution has exhibited a sensitivity to diversity.” He added that this is “an opportunity to educate people,” as heterosexual applicants and those previously ignorant of the LGBT community may learn something from seeing more options on the form than their more commonly expected ones.

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