The Common App — the application used by over 900 colleges and universities nationwide — announced revisions Wednesday aimed at creating a more inclusive space for LGBTQ+ people, specifically transgender and nonbinary applicants.
Beginning in August, the Common App will ask for applicants’ “legal sex” instead of “sex” with the intent of “reducing student confusion.” Additionally, the Common App will add the option to identify one or more pronoun sets or add their own; before, applicants could not select their pronouns and had an optional text box to further describe their gender identity.
“What I really hope that it will provide is really an affirmation for students that their background is unique and that they have a space to not only be acknowledged for who they are but also to be able to express themselves,” said Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App. “We hope that this will eliminate any potential barriers that stand in the way of anyone applying to college and ensure every student has a pathway to economic mobility and success.”
This change comes as the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities for LGBTQ+ people. In announcing the changes, the Common App cites data from the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth. According to data from 2020, 52 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, compared to 40 percent of all LGBTQ+ youth respondents.
The Trevor Project discovered that transgender and nonbinary youth “who reported having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected.”
Before they became a senior advocacy associate for the Trevor Project, Keygan Miller was a high school teacher in Cincinnati. They were humbled when a student asked them to write a college recommendation letter through the Common App in 2016. But when Miller logged on, the first question they got was their sex and gender, and there was not an option for they/them pronouns — not even an “other” option.
“I was there to assist a student and just make sure that they had the best opportunity to apply,” Miller said. “Having these systems that are in place that don’t allow us to identify in the way we do … it’s just really frustrating because here, you’re trying to do something exciting.”
Not seeing yourself represented in the process from the start creates myriad barriers for trans and nonbinary applicants, Miller said.
“As a trans person, when you go into a new space, like college, you don’t want to have to think about all the things that you’re going to have to fix upon getting there,” Miller said. “You don’t want to have to be like, ‘OK, now I’m gonna have to correct my professor because in admissions my name is wrong or my gender marker is wrong.’”
This change is one of many the Common App has implemented in the last year. Since March, Rickard’s team has been working on tweaking the application with student input. The application portal has also made changes to questions regarding citizenship, religion, school discipline, military history and family background that will be implemented in August as well.
“This is just really the tip of the iceberg because as we see, we need more than an evolution of the application. We actually need a revolution of the application,” Rickard said. “When you look at the questions on the application from when we started in 1975, and you can look at them today in 2021, they’re remarkably similar, yet our world is very different.”
Applications can cause increased and unnecessary anxiety and fear for LGBTQ+ people when it comes to how information on sex and gender is shared, Miller said. The revisions also include an explanation of an existing question about an applicants’ “preferred first name” to clarify how that information is used.
The Common App provided The 19th with anonymous statements from students who used the optional free response text field in the gender and sex section over the years, showcasing the same fears Miller outlines. Often, students did not want information about their sexual orientation or gender shared with family.
It all comes down to being transparent about how the information will be used, Miller said, so students don’t have to be the sole advocate for themselves.
“I think that the clearer you can be about how information is being used, the better off we’re going to be,” Miller said. “Anytime that you can see yourself in a space, it just verifies that that’s the place that you should be … So I’m interested to see what options they put on here because I think that’s going to make a big difference on how this is received.”