This year, when prospective students apply to Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., they will be asked for a little more personal information than usual.
The small liberal arts school, located west of Chicago, has become the first in the nation to add a question about sexual orientation to its college application. The question, which asks, “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?”, appears in a list of optional questions on the 2012-13 application for enrollment. In response, students may choose to answer yes or no, or mark “prefer not to answer.”
(PHOTOS: Queer Kids Coming Out in America.)
Answers to the question, which the university said will not be a determining factor in admissions, will be used to help determine eligibility for institutional “enrichment” scholarships given to applicants from underrepresented groups. By adding the question, LGBT students will now be considered among other groups of underrepresented students for the financial award, which covers up to one third of the cost of tuition.
Gary Rold, dean of admissions, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the question was also added as a way to ensure that the university is providing a welcoming and accepting environment for all students. “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 to do that is to meet people where they really are.”
In return, Elmhurst, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ (a church which is openly welcoming of LGBT people), has been praised by gay-rights activists for including the question. Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the advocacy group Campus Pride, applauded the decision and told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he expects more colleges to follow suit. “In the next 10 years, we’ll look back and ask why colleges didn’t make this change much sooner,” he said.
But, according to the Chronicle, currently only a handful of colleges even go as far as to probe students about their interest in LGBT issues, let alone ask them to declare their own sexual orientation. One such university, Dartmouth College, asks students to choose three selections from a list of personal interests that includes “gender identity” and “LGBT community.” Additionally, board members of the Common Application, an admission application accepted by 456 member colleges, rejected the idea of adding optional questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to the application earlier this year, saying the “potential benefits to adding the question would be outweighed by the anxiety and uncertainty student may experience when deciding if and how they should answer it.”
Still, though Elmhurst may be alone in its decision for the time being, in asking the question upfront on their application, the university took a step to show sexuality is out in the open at their school, which may be a welcome message to LGBT students who often seek college environments where they know they will be welcomed with open arms.
Kayla Webley is a Writer-Reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley or on Facebook at facebook.com/kaylalwebley. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.