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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Gender-identity options added to college applications
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-05-04

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On April 25, both The Universal College Application ( UCA ) and The Common Application announced significant changes to their college application forms beginning in the 2016/2017 academic year.

The UCA will both change the question of an individual's sex on its standardized form to 'legal sex' as well as adding an optional field for an applicant to note their gender identity.

The Common Application declared that "starting in the upcoming 2016-2017 academic year, students applying to college through The Common Application will have the ability to express their gender identity in several ways including within the Profile page, optional free response text field, as well as in member colleges' specific sections."

The Common Application altered the field denoting the sex of an applicant to "sex assigned at birth."

Launched in 2007, UCA offers a centralized application form for incoming and transfer students interested in attending 44 colleges throughout the United States.

After more than 41 years in use, The Common Application now boasts a roster of over 600 institutions of higher learning to choose from. On the organization's website, it states that "each year over 1 million students use The Common Application to submit over 3.5 million applications."

In its announcement, The Common Application noted that the change was made "after an ongoing dialogue with member colleges and universities and in consultation with the Application Advisory Committee, comprised of member representatives, and the Outreach Advisory Committee, which is made up of high school and CBO counselors."

The UCA credited its members alongside the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals and Campus Pride—a national, volunteer-driven nonprofit whose resolutely working to create and ensure safe college environments for LGBTQ students.

For Campus Pride, the changes to both the UCA and then The Common Application are the result of an exhaustive 10-year effort.

The organization works with 1,400 colleges across the country—yet only has two full-time employees and 12 staff volunteers, students or staff based on college campuses who help run Campus Pride's programs.

Shane Windmeyer serves as Campus Pride's executive director.

"In 2006, we began a process of creating what we would consider to be benchmarks for inclusion around LGBT issues," he told Windy City Times. "When it came to transgender students, we wanted to determine what colleges should be striving for as far as being an inclusive campus."

In an increasingly competitive market, colleges put considerable effort in increasing both their retention and recruitment numbers. Those figures are as routinely detailed as they are coveted by administration staff and their Boards of Directors. However, an important and exponentially growing student demographic tends to be missed.

"Colleges track retention rates around students of color, international students, athletes and gender," Windmeyer said. "But never have they looked at retention rates when it comes to LGBT young people. We know that they are at higher risk of substance abuse, depression, suicidality and other negative health consequences. If we knew that about any other population, we would be tracking their academic success and retention rates. The students who come to campuses who are already out as LGBT should have an option to be able to list that. Campuses will then be able to be held accountable. It existed for the race of a student but not for gender identity."

That has changed with a victory not easily won.

"There were a lot of challenges from within and outside the community that centered around misinformation about today's young students who identify across the spectrum when it comes to their gender and sexual identities," Windmeyer recalled. "These [centralized] application companies include schools that are religious or may not agree with having the gender identity as part of the standard application. We had to get them to focus on student safety and about doing better by being responsible for all students."

In 2011, despite intensive lobbying efforts by Campus Pride and an amassed army of 25 LGBT and higher education organizations, The Common Application turned them down.

"Their excuse at the time was 'we need to figure out what our members want'," Windmeyer said. "But ultimately it was about them not wanting to lose revenue from their members especially religious campuses. The same year that we asked for an LGBT identity question on the common app. they added a religious question."

In addition to centralized forms, colleges utilize internal applications. So Campus Pride went after individual institutions. According to Windmeyer, the first one to agree to add an LGBT-identity question to its admission application was Elmhurst College in Illinois.

Campus Pride worked relentlessly to add 23 more institutions to its list. The UCA eventually took notice and began working with the organization. The Common Application took the same gender identity steps on the same day UCA made its announcement.

"Supposedly The Common Application had been talking about this for a while but, a year ago, they were still saying 'no, we're not going to do this',"Windmeyer said. "They never reached out to us."

He added that, in terms of sexual identification, the difference between the UCA—which took Campus Pride's counsel and changed it to "legal sex" and The Common Application which changed it to "sex assigned at birth" is problematic for trans people and something that could have been resolved had The Common Application chosen to work with them.

Of additional concern is the pandemic of Religious Freedom legislation contaminating State Capitol buildings nationwide.

One of the colleges on The Common Application is the University of North Carolina which advised each of its campuses to comply with the state's infamous HB2 anti-transgender legislation passed in late March.

Having a gender-identity question could make a transgender student applying to any university across North Carolina understandably nervous even though the question is optional.

"What happened in North Carolina has complicated a lot of issues," Windmeyer said. "If a trans student chooses to self-disclose, they need to understand the campus they are applying to."

In order to help, Campus Pride offers a comprehensive database called the Campus Pride Index, which lists college campuses that are supportive of LGBT issues and have created an inclusive atmosphere around the extensive benchmarks the organization created a decade ago.

There are still a number of those benchmarks yet to be reached.

The recent move by both the UCA and Common Application focuses on gender identity but not an optional question regarding sexual orientation.

"It's a good step but it's not quite the full range of questions that we wanted for LGBT students." Windmeyer said.

Resolving that remains high on Campus Pride's list of goals as does increasing their outreach efforts to administrators and student leaders based in rural campuses and those in Southern states. It is a monumental task which Windmeyer hopes to achieve with funding to take on additional staff members.

"We can't force a college campus to want to do better," Windmeyer said. "For the last two years, we have been spending more time on the campuses that are the worst of the worst; those that openly discriminate."

"We're making sure that LGBT young people and their families are aware and we are doing a lot of work around bias and hate crime prevention," he added. "On some of those more conservative campuses, students have the responsibility on their backs to create a safe learning environment for especially LGBT student. We try to create a team approach where administrators, faculty and staff are working together."

For more information about Campus Pride, visit CampusPride.org .


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