Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hip


Last week I had another reminder that, as much as I would like to believe otherwise, I might not be hip.  My friends would probably say that hasn’t been true for a long time, and my children would doubt that it was ever the case.

The evidence is hard to ignore.  At least once a week I’ll see an article or a reference to some celebrity or star and realize I have no clue who that person is.  But until last week I took solace in the fact that I was professionally hip, aware of the latest trends and intrigue in the college admissions world.  What changed that was reading a post in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Head Count” blog that described sexual orientation as “the next hip question in admissions” and realizing that I didn’t know what the current hip question is.

Last week the University of Iowa received national attention when it became the first public institution to ask applicants about their sexual orientation on its undergraduate application for admission. Elmhurst College in Illinois became the first college or university to ask such a question in 2011.

The question on the Iowa application is optional, and doesn’t ask directly about a student’s sexual orientation.  The University has added “transgender” as an option under gender, and as one of a series of optional questions (legacy connection, parent educational background, interest in Greek life or ROTC) Iowa asks, “Do you identify with the LGBTQ Community?”

Upon seeing the story last week, I had three reactions:

1)      I was relieved to see a news story about college admissions that had nothing to do with colleges manipulating and misreporting data;

2)      I applaud the University of Iowa for its desire to be inclusive and welcoming to LGBT students, an important commitment and message for a flagship public university;

3)      I wonder if the application is the right place to send that message.

Mike Barron, Assistant Provost for Enrollment Management at Iowa, said in a Chronicle article that adding the question sends a message to LGBT students that the university is welcoming and “receptive to and sensitive to their lifestyle and their description of themselves.”  He also stated that responses will be used only to connect students with information and will play no role in admissions decisions.

I consider Mike both a friend and someone I respect greatly, but I don’t think the admissions application is the correct venue to send those (or any other) messages.  There are other ways to make students aware of student services and to communicate an institution’s commitment to welcoming various types of diversity.  The application should be reserved for asking only information that is directly relevant to determining a student’s qualifications for admission.  Any question that will play no role in admissions decisions shouldn’t be asked.

Some random questions and observations:

--CampusPride, an advocacy group working to encourage colleges to be more welcoming to LGBT students, argues colleges should ask the question on applications in order to better track admission and retention.  Shane Windmeyer, the group’s Executive Director, has described it as no different than tracking graduation rates for athletes or minorities, but there are differences. There are federal reporting requirements regarding race at this time but not regarding sexual orientation. Graduation rates for athletes, which are reported to the NCAA, are not based on information collected on admissions applications.  If tracking is desirable, which I accept, then why not gather the data from students who are enrolled than from the application?  A number of students become aware of their orientation while they are in college, making data collected during the application process flawed.  There may be symbolic value in having the question on the application, but not value for collecting accurate information.

--Is sexual orientation a form of diversity?  Do LGBT students bring a diversity of experience and viewpoint purely because of their sexual orientation?  That’s a debate worth having, but neither Iowa nor Campus Pride are making that argument (or I have missed it).  Elmhurst seemed to suggest that it is a form of diversity when it said that all applicants who answered yes to the question, “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT community?” would be considered for the institutions Enrichment Scholarship, given to underrepresented minority students.

--The Iowa question, “Do you identify (italics added) with the LGBTQ community?” is less clear than asking about a student’s sexual orientation.  I happen to be a parent of a gay child.  Do I therefore identify with the community?  Yes and no.  Does a straight student who is a member of his or her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance identify with the community?  What does a yes answer tell Iowa?  What does a no answer indicate?  What does leaving the question blank signify, given that the question is optional?

--Does not asking the question on the admissions application send a message to LGBT students?  Perhaps, but there are other ways (such as website and printed materials)   for colleges to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion and an environment that is welcoming.

--Should sexual orientation be a private matter?  The question is optional, so no one is obligated to answer, but is it the college’s business?  My daughter, who went to college having not yet determined that she is gay, says she would be hesitant to answer for fear that the information could be used to weed out LGBT students as well as welcome them. She also says that students for whom sexual orientation is central to their identity will find other places in the application to communicate that. One of her gay friends suggests that people would want to answer if they thought it gave them an advantage in the admissions process.

--Are there safeguards to protect the confidentiality of information once collected?  Early in my career, I noticed on a student’s application that he listed his parents as getting a divorce, something unknown to us at the school.  I passed on the information to our Chaplain, as was the protocol at the time.  The student was livid.  How will Iowa ensure that a student struggling with his/her identity doesn’t inadvertently get outed to parents or others through information sent to the student about services on campus?

 

As with most of the topics I try to address, I am much better at asking questions than providing answers.  The essence of the issue, though, is that any information gathered through an admissions application should be necessary to inform an admissions decision.

This is the final post until 2013.  If the Mayans are correct, it might be longer than that.

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