Monday, July 19, 2010

Discussion re: the Common Application

Dear Consortium Members,

Below is an account of the Consortium’s work with the Common Application, previous discussions with our membership, and concerns that have been put forward in the past and currently. This is a long document, but we encourage you read it in its entirety, especially if you are a Common Application school, and weigh in your opinions about these topics with each other, members of your admission office, and the Common Application itself.

We have included both a history and our recommendations about gender identity, which may be familiar as it has been sent over the list previously. We have also included the language for the question about “sex” that campuses are being asked to vote on as well as a summarization of previous recommendations and concerns about adding a question about sexual orientation.

We encourage you to visit our blog to read this post in its entirety, comment, and engage in discussion regarding the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in the Common Application.

Please direct all question to us at chair [at] lgbtcampus [dot] org

Debbie and Gabe


For the past three years, the Consortium has been in dialogue with the Common Application to change how they ask about “sex” on their admission form from “male/female” to an option that recognizes gender diversity.

Currently, the question about “sex” is one of the required questions to gain access to the application itself. Because a number of single-sex colleges use the Common Application and because schools use this data to meet federal reporting requirements, they have no intention of removing the “sex” questions. Therefore, we have been working with them to make the “sex” questions more inclusive and representative.

In 2009, at our Institute at Creating Change, we had a focused discussion with members about the Common Application and sought membership input about the language we were proposing. We incorporated members’ feedback and have continued to encourage the Common Application board to consider such language.

Additionally, there was significant discussion about whether to recommend the addition of sexual orientation to the Application, and at that time there was an overwhelming response against doing so.

Below is both the proposed language about gender identity as well as an outline of the key points raised against and for adding a question about sexual orientation.

Gender Identity

We have been working for some time on proposing a change in language on the Common Application to make it more trans inclusive. On the front end, we spoke to a lot of you individually, other professionals who work in higher education (e.g., director of financial aid, visa specialist, professor of trans theory), transgender activists outside of higher education, and we also had a discussion with membership at Creating Change in 2009. We thought long and hard about the most ideal language because we viewed our recommendation as possibly having a lasting impact.

Our primary and preferred recommendation after speaking with many people was that the gender question should mirror the question about ethnicity. Making the questions parallel would make the question about gender both optional and students would have the ability to select more than one option. The language we suggested for applicants to be able to select is:




__additional identity (specify_______).

We did not want to “other” the transgender identity, and we also wanted to leave the ability for applicants to be able to select more than one option and write in a different or more specific identity. The “specify with a line” language is consistent with the language on the question about ethnicity.

The Common Application is not considering the Consortium’s preferred option, but instead is pursuing the use of alternate wording. While the Consortium did originally offer an additional (“last resort”) option, the weaknesses of this option are quite significant. The alternate option was to ask “legal sex” (female, male) with a follow up question about “gender identity.”

At this time, the Common Application is moving forward with the following language and is considering ONLY asking “legal sex” (female/male) as an option, instead of the recommended language.

Below is the language that was sent out last week by the Common Application on which its members have been asked to vote:

Option 1

Legal Sex: [ ] Male [ ] Female

Online Additional Instructions: Federal guidelines mandate that we collect data on legal sex for all applicants. Please report the sex listed on your birth certificate. If you wish to provide more details regarding your sex or gender identity, you are welcome to do so in the Additional Information section.

Option 2

Legal Sex: [ ] Male [ ] Female

(Optional) If you prefer a different term to better describe your sex or gender identity, you may report that here ____________

Online Additional Instructions: Federal guidelines mandate that we collect data on legal sex for all applicants. Please report the sex listed on your birth certificate. If you wish to provide more details regarding your sex or gender identity, you are welcome to do so in the Additional Information section.

We are disappointed that they included as one of the options the status quo because it does not address the lack of opportunity that transgender students have to self-identify. We are concerned that in the end nothing will really change. We still feel strongly that the questions should ask female, male, transgender, and another identity with a write in option. We think it is important to mention transgender specifically, so students have a better sense of what is being asked of them and "transgender" is afforded the status of being a named category and not “othered.”

In addition, as forms and databases are all online, the gender question populates all other databases (i.e., housing, health center, academic records, etc.), so having an option beyond the female-male binary will positively and significantly impact how gender is coded on campus and how students are able to navigate through different systems and college/university offices.

Sexual Orientation

When we met at Creating Change in 2009, there was a large discussion about whether to add a question or measure for sexual orientation on the Common Application. There were a few people who thought it should be added, but the overwhelming majority believed that sexual orientation should not be included at the time. Below are the primary reasons that members offered in that discussion. You may be aware of additional reasons that were not discussed.

Looking back at our data from the conversation two years ago, it would indicate that our membership is not in favor of such a change. However, not all of our members were a part of this conversation, and some people’s opinions may have changed. Therefore, please take a moment to read the arguments on both sides and weigh in on the matter. Thank you.

Reasons for adding sexual orientation:

· This could help with identifying and recruiting LGBT applicants.

· This is a way to allow students to express their identity in the application process.

· It gives importance to sexual orientation, rather than marginalizing it or keeping it hidden.

Reasons against adding sexual orientation:

· Most states offer no protection against discrimination against LGBTQ identified people. Students already comfortable with their orientation may report it without deference to the risks that reporting such information may pose in the application process. Similarly, many religiously-affiliated institutions who are Common Application members may use the sexual orientation designation to deny admission.

· There was a great concern about how the data will be used. A fear was expressed that if for many different reasons students do not self-report and the numbers are low, that institutions will use this absence of “significant” numbers gathered via this question on the application to justify not providing and/or cutting institutional support for LGB students. There was an additional concern that the Common Application would not approve a multi-tiered question and there is no way to ask a question that is truly inclusive or adequate (i.e. that gets at behavior, identity, and orientation).

· Sexual orientation is seen differently than gender identity and can already be “captured” using other, existing methods. Sex is a category they are already asking and the goal is to make it more inclusive/representative for those who are filling out the application. They only ask sex and race. There are no other identity questions asked, such as religious affiliation or orientation. There was also a feeling expressed that students currently are able to share sexual orientation in three different ways on the application: through their personal essay, through their list of student activities, and through a box that invites students to share any additional information.

· Parents will negatively impact this process since many students may feel uncomfortable answering in front of them and/or parents may answer incorrectly if they fill out the application for their child.

· There was a feeling by some that there may be no compelling reason beyond recruitment to add the question, and that there are other mechanisms to collect data about students based on sexual orientation through campus-wide/nation-wide surveys (some already include sexual orientation and others we can advocate they add it).

What’s Next?

In terms of gender identity (and possibly this is also true about sexual orientation), it has been communicated in the past by the Common Application staff that even though they poll their members, they may choose to do something different than what they are polling about. Therefore, it is important that we continue to voice our opinion. We have set up a blog post where members can write in their thoughts and dialogue about this topic. We recognize that there is a wide range of opinions about the topic and encourage healthy and respectful discourse.

In addition, we encourage you to write the Common Application staff—as a professional working in the field—about your thoughts and concerns about both gender identity and sexual orientation. Lastly, if you are a Common Application school, we encourage you to also have conversations with your admission staff about both the gender identity and sexual orientation question and the reasons why you think they should or should not vote a particular way.

  • If you are a Common Application school, speak with your admission staff about your perspective and thoughts about both questions.

  • Write the Common App at:

Please note the deadline the Common Application has set to collect survey responses is July 31st.