When students like 18-year-old David Kamins were in high school, they were a dime a dozen at the nation's top schools: impossibly high GPA and SAT scores, leadership positions in extracurricular activities, well-written essays, great recommendations from his teachers and guidance counselors. But the lanky, dark-haired Kamins had an unlikely ace in the hole when it came to getting into elite universities: He's gay.
The longtime paragons of teenage success—the varsity-lettered quarterbacks, the repp-tie-wearing class presidents—have officially been put on notice. Gays are the new blue-chip recruits, and while denying that having a minority sexual orientation necessarily gives students like Kamins a leg up around the admissions-committee table, elite colleges have begun to target and woo gay students to their ivory towers.
In mid-April, the night before I meet Kamins, I'm at the University of Pennsylvania's LGBT center, where a few students are milling around the large, airy main room in a restored brick carriage house on the western edge of campus. They're getting ready for a mixer for prospective freshmen who are on campus for a Multicultural Scholars' Weekend, and everyone's curious to see who, exactly, shows up.
With Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" blaring from the speakers and the 200 or so students—many of whom are wearing buttons that say PENN CHOSE ME—milling around, I talk to a friendly, dreadlocked guy from Philadelphia named Marcus Mundy.
"At first I was like, 'How do they know I'm gay?' " Mundy says, referring to Penn's outreach to him. "Then they told me it was on the application," on which he indicated he was president of his school's gay-straight alliance.
"Penn is always looking for ways to reach those groups of high-school applicants that are going to be looking at top-tier schools like Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton," says Dennie Zastrow, a recent graduate from Penn and former head of the Lambda Alliance, Penn's umbrella group for its eight LGBT organizations. "This kind of outreach is definitely something universities can use to woo them."
It may not be affirmative action—which can mean reserving a certain number of spots for a certain group of people—but the question remains: How much does being gay help a college applicant? Mention the idea that an LGBT student in some way gets extra admissions points to Jordan Pascucci, an admissions officer at Penn who's a lesbian, and she disagrees. "Not at all," she says. "The reality of it is that this outreach is no different than what already happens with almost every other group on campus. All the cultural resource centers do this already, and it's a shame that it took so long to happen with the LGBT community."
But identifying as gay when applying to schools of Ivy League caliber is thought to provide the same boost as, say, being blue-collar or a first-generation college student—it is a marker of some nebulous notion of diversity while not exactly being on the same level as racial or ethnic minorities. So what's a gay worth?
"In some students' cases sexual orientation can weigh in the admissions committee's decision, depending on how much the student tries to disclose and how much is appropriate," says Irena Smith, a private college consultant in Palo Alto, California. "But I think a student's orientation would also need to feed into something either like a really strong sense of self-awareness or a willingness to organize politically and socially and form a support group or start a gay-straight alliance. I think admissions officers are more savvy than to just say, 'Here's an LGBT kid—we don't have enough of those.' "
This month's incoming freshman class is the first for which Penn identified and reached out to the 40 or so accepted high-school seniors who indicated on their applications that they were either gay or an "ally" to encourage them to attend—an initiative that was officially undertaken at just one other school, Dartmouth. And I saw that outreach in action on Penn's campus. I joined Kamins during a stroll he was taking with a gay Penn sophomore who had e-mailed Kamins when he was accepted and encouraged him to come visit. Kamins seemed slightly overwhelmed; he had just flown in from his home in Los Angeles, and the next day he was heading to check out his other top choices, Dartmouth and Bowdoin—he'd been accepted at all three schools.
Kamins wrote his admissions essay about coming out, a process he says was inspired by the movie Milk and the passage of Proposition 8 in California. But once on campus, he seemed rather uninterested in learning about Penn's social life, let alone in experiencing Philadelphia's gay party scene. "What are you looking for in a school?" I ask. "Political activism and a sense of community," he responds, as if straight out of a campus brochure.
To consultants like Smith, an aggressive focus on gay students means that straight applicants might find ways to manipulate the admissions process—quite a twist from the days when students were so ashamed of being gay that even the thought of coming out during college seemed traumatic. "The thing about being LGBT is you can't really check," Smith says. "You can't say, 'You're not dating other guys—you lied to us.' I'm sure that the savvier students have sat down and said, 'Ooh, this would play well.' If that's the auspices under which they get into a college, good for them—but also kind of too bad."
A few weeks after we meet at Penn, I catch up with Kamins by phone. The efforts to recruit him have paid off—but for Dartmouth, where he is a freshman. "At Penn, I knew there was a community, I knew they had their own building, that was really cool, whatever," he says. "But at Dartmouth they had activities. It seemed more lively. At Penn they had one preview day, but at Dartmouth they had a weekend."
"I wasn't an outsider at Dartmouth," he says. Quite an understatement, coming from a kid on the new Ivy League inside track.