University officials say the move sends a strong signal that they value the diversity that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students bring to campus. They say that knowing some students' sexual orientation will allow them to track their enrollment and graduation rates and promote housing, student groups and programs that might improve their social and academic success.
"This is a question whose time had come," university admissions director Michael Barron said.
Iowa's decision was praised by Campus Pride, an advocacy group that has been lobbying colleges to ask the questions so schools can track the progress of LGBT students. Elmhurst College, a private liberal-arts school in suburban Chicago, became the first -- and is still the only other -- college to do so last year.
Iowa's new application, which went into use Dec. 1, asks students whether they "identify with the LGBTQ Community." The item is listed with other optional questions about topics such as their interest in military programs and fraternities and sororities. A second change added "transgender" as an option for an applicant's gender.
The admissions office will immediately email students who identify as LGBT with links to information on housing options and campus resources that may interest them, Barron said.
"This is truly historic," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a nonprofit in Charlotte, N.C. "For the first time, a major, public and national research university has taken efforts to identify their LGBT students from the very first moment those students have official contact with them."
Windmeyer's group has been pushing for the change amid continued complaints about harassment, discrimination and campus safety among LGBT students. He said it is similar to tracking graduation rates for athletes or minorities and would help hold university administrators accountable for ensuring a safe learning environment.
Windmeyer said his group was in talks with other universities about making a similar change, and he expected at least one major school that he wouldn't name to follow suit in the next six months.
Georgina Dodge, the university's chief diversity officer, said Iowa recognized the risk of going first but felt it was the right thing to do after considering the change for years. She said the university expected resistance from critics who would rather not acknowledge sexual orientations other than straight.
"I personally feel that, as an institution of higher learning in education, it does not behoove us to bury our heads in the sand about the realities of contemporary life," she said. "There are identities that should be recognized. Along the spectrum of sexuality, there are multiple, multiple identities that need to be recognized. This is just one small step in that direction."
Dodge said the applicants' responses would be stored confidentially in the university's records. She said that student groups who wanted to reach LGBT students, for instance, could ask the university to send them a mass email -- but the recipients' identities would not be released.
Dodge said the question would allow the university to gather data for the first time on how many LGBT students are enrolled and whether they receive adequate programs and support. The university assumes it is doing well in this area, but data may show otherwise, she said.
The university framed its announcement as in line with its prior leadership in civil rights. Iowa was the first Midwestern state to legalize gay marriage, and the university was the first public school to offer insurance benefits to employees' domestic partners.
Barron said Iowa's history of inclusivity may get LGBT students to take a closer look. All students consider factors such as cost and academics in deciding where to attend college, but they also want to make sure they'll fit in, he said.
Admissions counselor Jake Christensen pushed for the change as part of an effort to improve Iowa's score on the Campus Pride Index, which compares universities on policies that impact LGBT students. Christensen, 24, said he came out as gay during his time at the university, where he graduated in 2010, after growing up in a small, conservative town in the western part of the state.
He said he would not have felt comfortable answering the question honestly as a high school senior but even its presence on the application would send a message of inclusion.
"This might be the first time that somebody is giving them the option to identify as such," Christensen said. "It recognizes that invisible form of diversity. It's not just about skin color."
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