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.


  1. Wow, to be honest I am surprised and a little saddened that there are 0 comments on this so far. Don't others have an opinion? I feel really torn about this issue. Should we be bowing to homophobia by keeping sexual orientation off of the common app? Of should we stand up for social justice and push the common app to include it. What do others think? I really would like to know.

  2. Thank you Gabe and Debbie for opening up a discussion on this topic. I was unable to attend Creating Change and value the invitation to participate in this dialogue online.

    I recently facilitated a discussion on collecting optional demographic information inclusive of sexual orientation (S/O) and gender identity (G/I) at the annual meeting of northeast consortium members. Allow me to summarize our conversation, and invite others who were there to make clarifications, corrections, and/or additions to my summary.

    My sense from that conversation is that the overall consensus was that we should support efforts to include optional demographic information inclusive of s/o and g/i.

    The Common App is just one medium to collect this data. I believe we should organize as a professional organization to advocate for collecting this data and tracking GLBT student success (however we define that)in both the Common App and other mediums.


  3. The reasons we at the annual meeting generated in favor of collecting this data--including but not limited to the Common App--are as follows:

    Such data will facilitate our:
    1. Outreach efforts.
    2. Abilities to understand GLBT students' college experiences and needs by having research-related access to them.
    3. Abilities to notice any trends in the data regarding a)Acceptance rates; b)Retention and persistence rates; c)Graduation rates compared to other disenfranchised populations and majority students.
    4. Attempts to provide evidence to support greater resources allocated to GLBT –related services.
    5. Efforts to empower students to express and manage their own identities.
    6. Efforts to normalize sexual orientation and gender identity diversity on campus.
    7. Research and assessment studies

    As for how collecting this data may harm students, we generated this list:

    1. Students may be denied admission based on sexual orientation and gender identity or face other negative consequences.
    2. Students may not share the data for fear of negative consequences
    3. Confidentiality may not be honored
    4. Such data collection may be perceived as providing an unfair advantage to GLBT students, especially in the case of admissions.

    My response to the arguments against are that we would be overstepping our boundaries if we attempt to limit students' control of their own identity management choices. To me, that is the very definition of being paternalistic, and I see our roles as facilitating student development such that they are empowered and equipped with making their own decisions, managing their own identities, and critically thinking about their options and potential consequences. We do them no favors when we presume that we can protect them from themselves.

    I'd also like to respond to the reasons Gabe and Debbie summarized as to why we should not collect s/o information in the Common App. My response is, in addition to my strong belief that we should empower students to make their own decisions and not limit their options for identity management, that we can make the exact same arguments against including g/i as were cited against including s/o (fear of consequences, students can write about g/i on application essays, they may be discriminated against based on g/i, gender is just as complex as sexuality and difficult to capture, etc.)

    Additionally, I disagree with the opinion to not collect s/o info because sex is already collected but religion, for example, is not. Just because something isn't currently collected, doesn't mean it shouldn't be. Also, using "other existing methods" confuses me. My campus doesn't have other existing methods to collect only s/o info but not g/i. And, if these methods that presumably exist elsewhere don't gather the data we need to better serve ALL of our students, then why should we support those existing methods at the exclusion of other more comprehensive and equitable methods?

    Finally, I'd like to say that just because something isn't perfect, doesn't mean we shouldn't pursue it. So, yes, collecting this data won't be easy. Yes, we will encounter many barriers. But that shouldn't stop us.

  4. Continued still...

    Some of the barriers that we may encounter include:

    Administrative Barriers:
    1. Belief that we must protect students from themselves because students will later regret coming out “on paper.”
    2. Some administrators do not see GLBT students as a large enough population for whom we should dedicate scant resources.
    3. Some administrators believe that if no one else is doing this, then we shouldn't either.
    4. Some administrators think GLBT are not disadvantaged and therefore neither affirmative action nor tracking data is necessary.
    5. Some administrators won't do this because it is not mandated by the federal government.
    6. Some administrators believe that GLBT is set of behaviors or physical attributes rather than an identity, therefore see this as an invasion of student privacy or as “inappropriate.”

    Student barriers we may encounter include:
    1. Some students may not yet be developmentally able to identify as GLBT.
    2. Some may not yet be out or ready to identify.
    3. Some students may find it an invasion of privacy, inappropriate, or fear discrimination.

    Still, despite these barriers, I believe it is imperative to --and we would be remiss if we didn't--advocate for normalizing s/o and g/i data inclusion, and to support students to make their own identity management decisions.

    If you've read this far, thanks for hanging in there with me. :) Again, thanks to Gave and Debbie for opening up this discussion.

  5. Hi all -

    I hope it's OK for me to join your discussion - if this a violation of any blog protocal, please accept my apology -

    I think Debbie and Gabe's summary above is a very fair representation of their discussions with us at the Common Application. Just three small points I should clarify:

    -- Race and sex are not the only optional demographic information we collect from applicants; we also collect religious preference, marital status, and veteran status.

    -- Our members didn't "vote" on these proposed new questions, rather we surveyed them. The Common App Board of Directors will certainly consider the survey results in making its final decision, but there are other factors they will consider as well. They are, for example, conducting independent research with the help of an outside consultant, as well as considering the excellent feedback from this Consortium, Campus Pride, and others. I will echo Debbie and Gabe's suggestion that those of you who work for Common App member institutions are encouraged to talk with your campus admission offices to make your views known.

    - Our two proposed sex/gender questions do follow the example of the race/ethnicity question, in that both questions conform to Federal reporting requirements, particulary the DOE IPEDS form. Both questions in their current form, however flawed, are largely mandated for any college receiving Federal funds of any kind. All of that said, we tried to make the best of a controversial Federal race/ethcnity question by giving applicant the opportunity to express their identity beyond the Federal checkboxes. (If you log into the Common App Online, you'll see how we've tried to accomplish this). In much the same way, we're exploring ways we can abide by Federal sex/gender reporting rules, while also giving applicants the opportunity to express their identity beyond the Federal checkboxes.

    I hope this provides some useful information and context, and we look forward to continuing this converation. A final decision for the 2010-11 applicaiton will likely be finalized and announced in January.


    Rob Killion, Executive Director
    The Common Application, Inc.
    13135 Lee Jackson Hwy, Suite 300
    Fairfax, VA 22033

    The Common Application is a not-for-profit membership organization that, since its founding 35 years ago, has been committed to providing reliable services that promote equity, access, and integrity in the college application process. We serve students, member institutions, and secondary schools by providing applications - online and in print - that students and school officials may submit to any of our more than 400 members. Membership is open to colleges and universities that promote access by evaluating students using a holistic selection process.