Admissions Targets LGBT Applicants

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April is decision time for college-bound high-school students, and it found Ross Kelley in a reflective mood. Kelley had long since chosen Penn as his academic home. The College sophomore was nearing the halfway point of his undergraduate studies, on track to major in economics while minoring in mathematics and statistics. But as campus tour guides geared up for the annual onslaught of admitted applicants that is Penn Preview Days, Kelley recalled a part of his own tour that helped to settle his mind on Penn. 

“I saw that there was an LGBT Center here, something I saw at very few other campuses,” he said, referring to Penn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center on Spruce Street. The tour leaders “didn’t make a big deal of it,” Kelley went on, “but I saw the rainbow on the building. And I also read up in The Advocate about gay-friendly campuses. Penn was very close to the top, if not number one.

“This was actually really important to me when I was thinking about college,” Kelley added. “It obviously wasn’t the main consideration, but it was a part of it.”

This year, Penn began making a slightly bigger deal out of that campus strength. As part of a broad effort to persuade more admitted applicants to matriculate, the undergraduate admissions office joined forces with the campus LGBT community to reach out directly to prospective students whose applications indicated an interest in gay-friendly campuses. Kelley was among the undergraduates who volunteered to contact a few of these potential members of the Class of 2014, to share a positive take on what has been, for him, a tolerant campus where he has thrived. 

In one sense, the initiative is little more than an extension of the kind of “interest-based recruiting” of admitted applicants that is increasingly the standard at Penn and its peer institutions. When a high-school senior is admitted to the Wharton School, for instance, she may be contacted by an undergraduate “Wharton ambassador” who can answer questions about the curriculum, the social scene, or any other concern that may influence her decision about whether to enroll at Penn versus, say, Harvard. The same goes for admitted applicants with strengths in what Dean of Admissions Eric Furda C’87 calls “areas of under-enrolled majors like physics, chemistry, and mathematics … where we have great faculty and wonderful resources here, but we don’t have as many majors as we would like.”

Once students have been admitted to Penn, Furda points out, the admissions offices’s job shifts from evaluating applicants to enticing the chosen ones to enroll. “Students who are coming through an intense evaluation and selection process like this are going to have a lot of options,” he says. “If we’re admitting a student, we want to yield that student.” 

These days, that means speaking directly to his or her interests. Marcus Mundy’s experience shows how the process works. Although Mundy, who identifies as “queer,” applied early-decision (which is binding), he heard from several people at Penn soon after being accepted into the Class of 2014. One was Bob Schoenberg Gr’89, director of the LGBT Center.

Schoenberg says Mundy came to his attention as one of 41 accepted applicants “who had self-disclosed as L, G, B, or T; who had identified as strong ‘allies’ of LGBT people; or had identified as the children of LGBT people.” That disclosure came via “two mechanisms that I’m aware of,” he adds: their lists of extracurricular activities and their personal essays. Mundy, among other things, had been president of his high school’s gay/straight alliance. 

 “It seemed normal,” Mundy said in April. “I had been getting a lot of emails from different faculty members, from what I’d put on my application. After the first one, from the music department, I figured that other people would be contacting me soon.”

That expectation is increasingly common, and it’s a challenge Penn’s admission’s office appears to embrace. “We’re [dealing] with a generation of students that have technology at their disposal,” Furda observes. “The more that we can speak to students about their individual interests, the better off we’re going to be in finding students that understand what Penn has to offer, understand what their own interests and pursuits are, and make the type of match that we really want to make.”

He adds, “So if there’s a student who is saying, I’m interested in physics, and performing arts, and maybe I’m also interested in your LGBT community, great—let’s pull all those pieces together and speak to that student from those multiple variables.” 

Adding LGBT to that list has presented a unique set of challenges. For one thing, Penn uses the Common Application, which doesn’t provide a checkbox regarding sexual orientation the way it does for things like ethnicity and U.S. Armed Forces veteran status. Furda says the admissions office has tried to be cautious about whom it targets for outreach once decision letters have been sent out. 

“We need to be really careful here, for the student and also for Penn,” he explains. “If a student on the Common Application puts down as one of the clubs they’re involved with, for example, a gay/straight alliance, we’re not going to contact the student [just] because of that.” After all, the whole point of gay/straight alliances is their inclusion of straight people. “We’re going to make sure that there’s multiple elements in the application where the student is clearly saying they have already identified themselves in their own community—basically that they’ve already come out—and that this is something that is critically important to them as one of the aspects of the college community that they’re going to attend.”

The transition from high school to college can be an anxious time for young people wrestling with their sexuality. That’s what motivated another current Penn undergrad to volunteer for the new outreach program, which was spearheaded by the Lambda Alliance, a coalition of LGBT-oriented student groups. “I came out at the end of high school, and I was really, really nervous,” the Wharton student, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “I was very hard on myself about it. And since I was going to be studying business, I was really worried that my sexual orientation would be a huge hindrance to that, and I wouldn’t be able to be open about it and happy at the same time.

“But Penn completely changed that. For example, they have a mentorship program for students who are just newly coming out, and I signed up for that. They paired me with a current student based on our backgrounds and interests, and that was really helpful in building my confidence and making me feel comfortable. And today I feel completely fine and happy here. I really owe it to the amazing community and resources that are available here at the University.”

In this student’s view, that represents a competitive advantage for Penn, and one that may be undervalued. “You know, there are a lot of stereotypes among the Ivies. Yale is supposed to be the gayest Ivy. Well, from my experience here, I’d say that’s not true. I think that Penn actually has a better environment.” 

Determining which applicants to target with that message is one challenge. Making sure it doesn’t get garbled or distorted is another. 

Penn’s initiative attracted substantial media attention this spring, from publications ranging from Inside Higher Ed to The New York Times, and the subsequent commentary occasionally engendered mistaken impressions. Says Bob Schoenberg: “I frequently have conversations via email with high school students—not just since this new effort has been put into place—and one of them was even thinking of advancing his coming-out process because he thought it might increase his chances of being accepted, based on what he had heard.  So I wrote to him immediately. I said, first of all, where you go to college should not be what determines when, if at all, you come out as gay. That has to be determined by other factors. So take your time. And second, it’s not true that Penn gives favoritism—that being gay increases the likelihood that you’ll be accepted.”

Furda says the recruiting only begins when the selection process has ended and enrollment offers have been mailed; being gay doesn’t give an applicant an edge in the highly competitive admissions arms race.

Yet high school students and counselors can be prone to making “a lot of assumptions,” says Jordan Pascucci, a regional director of admissions and LGBT liaison at Penn. They also face a lot of uncertainty. “There are a lot of counselors who are struggling with how to advise students on whether to even come out during the application process,” Pascucci notes. “It’s such new territory. But the whole point is to give voice to this population and address their needs, just like we do for everyone else. I think there will be more communication going forward, and dialogue when we go on the road. But even if the message did get a little confused, for the people it really matters to, the message was that Penn is a place for you.”

Penn’s new effort to reach out to a targeted LGBT segment of their applicant pool has not happened in a vacuum. Dartmouth has been doing something similar, and Furda suspects that more, if less publicized, efforts are under way elsewhere. 

Some high-profile financial and consulting firms have been at it for longer. In October, the seventh annual Out For Undergraduate Business Conference will take place in New York, providing a venue for employers to pitch themselves as pleasant places for talented LGBT people to work. This year’s sponsors include Morgan Stanley, Boston Consulting Group, Goldman Sachs, and more than a dozen other elite firms. The annual Reaching Out LGBT MBA Conference, which also takes place in October, features an even broader cross-section of national and international firms, from Delta Airlines to Johnson & Johnson to Walmart. 

Measuring the success of Penn’s LGBT outreach is difficult in the absence of comparative data from past years. In mid May, Furda estimated that of the 41 admitted applicants targeted for outreach, 24 would be enrolling in the Class of 2014. That’s in line with the overall yield rate of approximately 63 percent. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the initiative has borne fruit. College sophomore Nick Stergiopoulos is another volunteer who contacted LGBT applicants. “We’ve gotten really enthusiastic responses from them,” he said in April. “Obviously, not everyone is extremely comfortable about talking about these things, but they’re very appreciative of being reached out to. And they’ve said that it’s made them a lot more comfortable about coming to college in the fall.” 


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