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More Students Don’t Identify Racial/Ethnic Background on Applications, Says Study

More Students Don’t Identify Racial/Ethnic Background on Applications, Says Study


      A new report, “‘Unknown’ Students on College Campuses: An Exploratory Analysis,” was released today by The James Irvine Foundation. Authors of this study explore the dramatic increase in the percentage of college students who do not identify their racial/ethnic background on college admissions forms. Their study examined this group of students at three private California colleges and found that a sizeable portion of them are White. Another large group are multiracial students who select “White” as part of their racial/ethnic identification. The report was released as part of The James Irvine Foundation Campus Diversity Initiative (CDI), coordinated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Claremont Graduate University (CGU).

      “We are pleased to have supported the twenty-eight campuses in the Campus Diversity Initiative to increase the success of underrepresented students in higher education in California,” said James Canales, president & chief executive officer of The James Irvine Foundation. “The results of this particular study should support efforts to more effectively monitor and describe campus change with regard to diversity over time.”

      The authors, researchers from AAC&U and CGU, examined two independent data sets. The first set, admissions data, was converted into enrollment data upon students’ acceptance and matriculation into college. The second set, CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman Survey data, was gathered after the students were on campus.

      While the authors could not compare data at the level of individual students, they found that comparing students by racial/ethnic group across the two data sets yielded important information, especially if the campus experienced high response rates on the CIRP. With one such campus in the study, for example, enrollment data indicated White students to be 42% of the total entering cohort, while CIRP data showed White students to comprise between 57% and 70% of this same cohort.

      “While this study is exploratory, it is a big first step in isolating and addressing the problems associated with how campuses and the federal government track the racial/ethnic background of today’s college students,” said AAC&U president, Carol Geary Schneider. “Given what we now know about the educational value of diverse learning environments, it is more important than ever that we have an accurate picture of student diversity on our college campuses. We need to attend to the growing number of students who don’t identify their racial/ethnic background on admissions forms. We cannot rely on anecdotes about these students or on assumptions that they are all multiracial, especially at schools with highly competitive admissions.”

      As the report notes, nationally, the percentage of individuals in the unknown category has increased nearly 100 percent between 1991 and 2001, from 3.2 percent to 5.9 percent, and on individual campuses, the percentage can be much higher. This study breaks new ground in devising a method that can be used to find out more information about the “unknown” group, though the study does not examine the various reasons why some students may choose to withhold this identity information.

      The report ends with a series of recommendations to improve data collection and use at both the campus and federal levels. The authors feel a special sense of urgency around the growing “unknown” population, particularly with regard to its potential effects on the compositional diversity of an institution as well as on the resulting campus climate. The trend also points to a need for more detailed collection and more nuanced use of data.

      “We must move away from collapsing multiple groups of students into categories that are not very useful, including for federal data reporting,” said lead author Daryl G. Smith, of CGU. “College and university leaders need to obtain detailed information about students’ racial/ethnic backgrounds in order to know precisely who is-and who is not-getting into college.”

      To read the entire report online, visit > and to read about the Campus Diversity Initiative, see <>.

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