- Associated Press - Thursday, October 13, 2011

ELMHURST, Ill. Gary Rold didn’t necessarily consider himself a pioneer when he decided that Elmhurst College would begin asking applicants about their sexual orientation.

“I thought from the recruitment standpoint we might be more proactive” in attracting gay students, said Mr. Rold, admissions dean at the small, private liberal-arts school tucked in a middle-class Chicago suburb. “I realized that many of them come to college feeling really isolated and alienated.”

Mr. Rold’s decision touched off a flurry of publicity after gay advocates lauded Elmhurst as the first in the nation to ask applicants about sexual orientation - an idea that has gotten little traction elsewhere.

Advocates say that besides being a recruiting tool to help diversify campuses, openly assessing the sexuality of a school’s population would make colleges more aware of needs such as matching roommates and providing appropriate health care. And it would send a positive message to prospective students who may have faced discrimination in high school.

“Colleges have a responsibility to take care of students they admit so all can succeed academically,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the national advocacy group Campus Pride, who said asking applicants about sexual orientation should be as common as questions about race and ethnicity.

But officials at other colleges, especially those that are large and well-known, say they don’t need to ask because they already have reputations for being diverse and inclusive, and a student’s sexual orientation would have no bearing on admission. Others wonder if some schools worry about the controversy such a question might generate.

Mr. Windmeyer’s group pushed for adding the question to the Common Application - a uniform document used by more than 450 colleges and universities, including some of the nation’s most exclusive - but that group’s board of directors rejected the idea earlier this year.

Schools already had other ways to signal support for gay students and for students to indicate their sexual orientation, said Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application. What’s more, some admissions officers and high school counselors worried the question could cause anxiety for some students, even though it would be optional.

“I think places like Elmhurst will be the vanguard,” Mr. Killion said. “It will be good to get feedback from their applicants on whether the question is appealing or not. We’re constantly changing as a society, so we’ll see what happens.”

Mr. Rold said Elmhurst, affiliated with the United Church of Christ - which officially supports same-sex marriage - will use the optional question to help increase diversity at its 2,900-student campus about 15 miles west of Chicago.

Elmhurst students Ally Vertigan and Emily Ponchinskas, who is president of a campus group called Straights and Gays for Equality, say they’re proud of their school.

“It’s important if for the sole reason that Elmhurst is letting people know that diversity is more than just what color your skin is or what language you speak,” said Ms. Vertigan, a senior majoring in religion and Spanish.