Common App: It's Time to Pop the Question

Two weeks ago, 25 LGBTQ and other social justice organizations issued a recommendation to the Common Application, used by over 500 colleges and universities, to add optional sexual orientation and gender identity questions. In 2011, the application rejected a similar proposal and noted the possibility of revisiting the topic later in the decade because of "evolving cultural norms." Since then, the cultural norms around sexual orientation and gender identity have not just evolved -- they've been revolutionized.

This year, we witnessed same-sex marriage legalized nationwide. Alongside this growing cultural acceptance for LGBTQ identities, the average age for youth coming out as LGBTQ has reached all-time lows of 16 in Israel and 15 in the UK. However, higher education professionals can't necessarily pat themselves on the back just yet and absolve themselves of certain responsibilities.

It is critical for colleges and universities to embrace diversity on their campuses. Many schools make their commitments to diversity clear with non-discrimination statements and policies, often times including sexual orientation and gender identity. Institutions can hold themselves accountable for their explicit dedications to diversity by tracking the rates of admission, yield and retention of members of different historically marginalized populations. When a school falls short in equitably meeting the needs of its students, it is the administration's responsibility to act. Data for these purposes is readily available to administrators because students' demographic information for race, ethnicity, religion, gender and other identities is immediately logged at the moment of application.

Despite cultural progress on LGBTQ issues, discrimination against sexual and gender minorities is still rampant, and higher education communities are not exempt. However, we cannot fathomably begin to understand and resolve the issues facing this community unless we begin to document its size and unique educational needs.

Without data on colleges' and universities' service of LGBTQ applicants and students, schools can hide behind their diversity structures already in place without truly committing to institutional equity. To ignore the distinct needs of LGBTQ individuals is a disservice to LGBTQ applicants and students across the country. If the Common Application were to begin asking applicants to optionally self-identify their sexual orientations and gender identities, they would hold the power to stop colleges and universities from ignoring the data behind sexual and gender diversity on their campuses.

MIT sets a good example with their check-box question implemented in 2013

It's not all about the data, though. With youth coming out of the closet at even younger ages, many high school seniors want to share these important components of their identities with their schools of choice. To that point, some critics may say that there are other opportunities on the rest of the Common Application to elaborate on this piece of identity if it is truly so meaningful.

However, this perspective fails to take into account that all applicants are only allotted one personal statement. Many LGBTQ applicants, just like any of their heterosexual and cisgender peers, would prefer to write about a meaningful life experience, favorite extracurricular activity or perhaps their deceased grandparent. Additionally, this point of view places an unnecessary and unfair burden on LGBTQ applicants, who would then be expected to write an essay in order to come out, rather than simply checking a box. When I came out of the closet as a teenager, I was prepared to let others know about my sexual orientation, but I was not prepared to write a 500 word essay about what my sexual orientation means to me. I wouldn't want to anyway, because that is not the only thing that defines me as a person.

The Common Application would not be the first entity to adopt these questions. Over the last few years, Elmhurst College, the University of Iowa, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University have all added optional sexual orientation and gender identity questions to their undergraduate applications. The results from these pilot tests have revealed about five percent of applicants identifying as LGBTQ at Elmhurst College and two percent at the University of Iowa.

Our nation is at a cultural crossroads for LGBTQ equality, and it's time for our institutions of higher education to follow suit. Denying LGBTQ applicants the opportunity to easily self-identify is a refusal to accommodate sexual and gender diversity in college and universities. The Common Application has the opportunity to make history and ensure that inclusivity is the norm, rather than an exception, on campuses across the country.