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Sexual Orientation Added To Illinois College's Application

SCOTT SIMON, host: College applications contain a multitude of boxes to check. Potential students may be asked to disclose their race or their religion. Now, a college in Illinois is adding another check-box, inviting applicants to disclose their sexual orientation.

Elmhurst College is thought to be the first in the country to do this. Applicants who answer yes could get a scholarship worth up to a third of their tuition.

We're joined now from studios of WBEZ in Chicago by Dean of Admissions at Elmhurst College.

Dean Rold, thanks so much for being with us.

GARY ROLD: Scott, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Dean, let me ask you the question I think might be in the minds of a lot of people who just hear about this story. How is a student's sexual orientation any of your business?

ROLD: Well, if a given individual feels that it isn't, they don't have to answer the question. It would only be something where it is an important - if they feel it's an important part of their identity, they have the option to tell us. They don't have to.

And we realize that some students won't answer the question. But some will, and for those students what we want to do is channel them to resources on campus, like the Straights and Gays for Equality; other programming, other kinds of things we do that will be more welcoming. Help them find what most kids are looking for when they go to college - a good fit, a place that takes care of them, worries about their needs and helps them graduate and go out into the world.

SIMON: There's something I don't understand.

ROLD: Sure.

SIMON: If a young student arrives at Elmhurst and they are gay, I mean surely all they have to do is see a notice somewhere saying: Lesbian and gay students have a meeting tonight, have a social event tonight, all are welcome.

ROLD: Well, you would think so. But it doesn't always work out that way. We get to send a message to people via our application; who are we? Well, what we stand for? What are we about? What's our philosophy? The application is one of the ways we do that.

So by seeing the item, we think we send a message to perhaps even a junior in high school who lives in Montana and has never heard very much about Elmhurst College. This is their way of knowing at least a little piece of us and a little bit more of who we are.

SIMON: What if a youngster changes? I mean college is a time of experimentation and discovery, for that matter. What if they're 17 and say, yeah, I'm gay. And then they get to be 19 and discover, well, maybe I'm straight after all. So are you asking students to define themselves at a time when they're discovering themselves?

ROLD: It may be true, Scott, that people experiment. Experimentation and sexual identity, gender identity, those - I think they're very different things. In our experience - and we've vetted this fairly thoroughly with the gay community. I have staffers who are gay and lesbian and we talked a lot about that. And I asked the question you asked: What is the likelihood that somebody is going to not know who they are at 17 and they may not have come out, but they know they are.

And if they haven't come out and they're uncomfortable with the item, then they won't answer it.

SIMON: Gary Rold, dean of Admissions at Elmhurst College, thanks so much.

ROLD: Thank you very much, Scott.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.