The University of Iowa announced Wednesday that it would be adding an optional sexual orientation question to its admissions application, making it the first major public research university to do so.

"Today we have more and more students who are coming to our campuses already out, and giving them an option to say, 'I'm gay' and check a box allows the campus to to be held accountable and to be responsible for their academic success and having a positive experience on the campus," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director at Campus Pride, a group that advocates for LGBT students on campuses.

This question isn't intended to be the basis for affirmative action in admissions, but rather as a means of tracking graduation rates and student achievement. "Right now, colleges aren't doing anything," he said, when it comes to collecting data on this population.

He points out that while many colleges have LGBT groups on campus, still only 13 percent of campuses list sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies. Research Campus Pride published two years ago found that nearly a quarter of lesbian, gay and bisexual students experienced harassment on campus daily. That number was nearly tripple for transgender students.

"Right now my fear is that there's LGBT students out there who are out and coming to campus, experiencing harassment, fearing for their safety, and dropping out and we just don't know about it because we're not asking the question to get the data," Windmeyer told Raw Story.

Campus Pride pushed the makers of the Common Application, a standardized application more than 400 colleges use, to add a sexual orientation question. In January 2011, the Common Application turned Campus Pride down -- and instead added a question to identify students' religion.

Windmeyer said that though he's disappointed with the decision the Common Application made, he's optimistic that the University of Iowa, private nonprofit Elmhurst College and a yet-to-be-announced college will be signing on to the optional sexual orientation question. Adding the question, Windmeyer said, is a signal that college are going beyond hosting student-driven LGBT group to support to taking proactive steps to support its LGBT population.

"Today on college campuses, their safety is on [the LGBT students'] own backs. We have students having to advocate for safety in their own communities," he said. "The institution has a responsibility here."

[An LGBT pride flag held aloft during a demonstration. Photo: Olga Besnard /]