The Universal College Application introduces gender identity questions

The University of Rochester is a member of the Universal College Application.

Once again, the Universal College Application (UCA) is paving the way for others in the industry to follow, by introducing changes designed to make it easier for applicants who do not identify as either woman or man to describe how they wish to be identified to colleges.

In a statement released to colleges and others on Sunday but embargoed for Tuesday, the UCA announced that effective July 1, its standard application form will include a modification to its question about an applicant’s sex and will add a new gender identity question.

The modified question relating to the sex of an applicant will continue to be a required question but changes from simply asking “Sex” to now asking “Legal Sex.” The options continue to be either “Female” or “Male,” and the applicant must choose one response.

The new “Gender Identity” question is optional, and the choices are “Woman,” “Man” or “Self-Identify” with a free-form text field provided.

Late Monday, the Common Application reversed a long-standing policy set by its board of directors in 2011 and followed the UCA lead by announcing on its website that students applying in 2016–17 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.”

According to UCA, the application modifications were requested by member colleges and universities as well as by national LGBTQ student advisory organizations. Over the past year, UCA has worked closely with Campus Pride and the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to carefully craft its response to the requests from LGBTQ youth, higher education and youth advocacy organizations.

“The Universal College Application is being responsive to today’s diverse student population by adding the gender identity question. We need this information to ensure we are supporting all students’ academic experiences,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride. “Campus Pride applauds the Universal College Application for being the first to do so on their standardized form.”

In its statement, the Common App indicated that the decision to change position came after an “ongoing dialogue” with member colleges and universities and in consultation with its Application Advisory and Outreach Committees.

“We asked all the companies that produce admissions applications to add a question about gender identity, and the Universal College Application was the only one that immediately saw the value of such a change and made it,” explained Dr. Genny Beemyn, the director of the Stonewall Center. “Others are now following suit.”

And by working with organizations supporting the LGBTQ community, the UCA approach is less controversial and more in line with what experts believe is appropriate language.

According to the Common App, their change will offer a free-response text field to give students a place to further describe their gender identity. Within the Profile screen, the sex question will be modified to “sex assigned at birth” as opposed to the UCA’s modification to “legal sex.” Representing Campus Pride, Windmeyer noted that the language “sex assigned at birth” is problematic and suggested that while the open-ended field is an inclusive approach, it will be challenging for data collection with gender identity.

In fact, one of the motivations behind the optional gender identity question is the “clarified” legal concerns associated with Title IX compliance. Colleges now have more of an incentive to seek information about transgender applicants and students. And if a recent discussion on the Common Data Set listserv is any indication, there are associated reporting problems for colleges providing data to IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System).

For everyone involved, the willingness of both the Common Application and the UCA to modify their applications in ways that help make gender identification easier for applicants and result in better reporting for colleges marks an historic shift in attitude. Note that the Coalition and CollegeNET® have yet to comment on their respective positions in this regard, but it seems likely they will follow suit.

“I think we’re all going to have to take a step forward and stop assuming, to the extent that we do, that any specific person standing in front of us has an identity that we can discern at a glance,” said Jonathan Burdick, dean of college admission and vice provost for enrollment initiatives at the University of Rochester, in support of the UCA announcement on Sunday. “That’s kind of exciting, I think, to be living in a society on the cusp of a new, more sophisticated degree of understanding about what it means to be a human being.”

This article first appeared on Examiner.com on April 28, 2016