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On Census Race/Ethnicity Data Collection

On March 28, the White House quietly announced that the way the U.S. will collect race and ethnicity data had changed. The changes, though announced with little fanfare, are set to impact how higher education institutions collect data on, understand, and describe the racial and ethnic makeup of their student bodies.

Dr. Karly FordDr. Karly FordThe process to make these changes began in June 2022 with the creation of the Interagency Technical Working Group of Federal Government career staff, who set about to review the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 (Directive No. 15): Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. This directive identifies the minimum standards for collecting data across federal agencies to ensure appropriate categories for comparison and representation. The working group consulted the most current research and held listening sessions and virtual townhalls. Once they came up with their proposed changes, they invited online public comments, receiving over 20,000 from individuals, private and public organizations, and local government agencies.

These changes will have important impacts on higher education due to data collection via the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). All postsecondary education institutions that receive federal funds must report demographic data to IPEDS. While institutions may collect the data in any way they choose, they then must convert that data into the standard reporting categories for IPEDS, which prior to the changes consisted of a question asking about Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, followed by a question asking about race with a minimum of five race categories. For many institutions, it is easiest to collect data according to IPEDS categories (though there is evidence that institutions aggregate these data in unique ways to present certain images of diversity (see Ford & Patterson, 2018; Holland & Ford, 2021)). The changes in Directive No. 15 will directly impact the categories that IPEDS will require that institutions report, and likely, the way that higher education institutions ask students about race/ethnicity identity.

We outline the three main changes to federal agency reporting on race/ethnicity data in Directive No. 15 and then suggest how these changes may impact higher education.

First, there is the addition of a new race category: Middle Eastern or North African. In the past, people who identify as Middle Eastern or North African have been instructed to select “White” as their racial category. This has long perplexed Middle Eastern and North African people whose lived experiences in the U.S. are filled with moments when they are racialized and minoritized in ways that are distinct from whiteness.

Dr. Megan IantoscaDr. Megan IantoscaSecond, race/ethnicity will be collected in a single, rather than a two-part question. Before, the first part of the question asked about whether, or not, someone identified as Hispanic/Latino, and the second part of the question asked about race categories. Moving forward, Hispanic/Latino will be a category in a single race/ethnicity question.

Third, the new guidelines require that the students who select more than one race/ethnicity be labeled as “multiracial and multiethnic.” This is a significant departure from previous practices. Many students who select two or more races would not identify as “multiracial and multiethnic” — for example, Afro-Latino students.

Finally, the OMB provides guidance that institutions should collect more detailed data beyond the required categories. The details on how and why to collect more detailed data is slim, the White House recommends this “to ensure further disaggregation in the collection, tabulation, and presentation of data when useful and appropriate.”

This will likely impact higher education in the following ways:

Representationally, the number and proportion of white students in higher education is going to visibly shrink. As Middle Eastern and North African students begin to identify with a separate category, their counts will no longer be under the white umbrella. Be wary of reports that white enrollment dropped dramatically. Rather, decreases in white enrollment will be the result of MENA students who will no longer be under the white umbrella.

In addition, it is likely that the “multiracial/multiethnic” category will grow. There have always been people who identify with Hispanic/Latino and one or more racial group. In the past, when this was two questions, these people were included in Hispanic/Latino. In this new set up, these people will now be counted as “multiracial/multiethnic.” Conversely, the number of Hispanic/Latino students may shrink in size for the same reason.

Lastly, higher education institutions and organizations that interface with them (the Common App, the College Board which administers the SAT, for example) will need to revise their current data collection methods. They will face some challenges with data continuity in the first few years of implementation.

The changes required by Directive No. 15 open up new ways to think about racial/ethnic categorization and how higher education institutions collect and make meaning of that data. They offer opportunities for colleges and universities to devise more inclusive and representationally accurate data collection methods that may make students feel seen and represented on campus. It is likely that our understanding of the student population in higher education is going to shift to be broader and more nuanced. This also could allow for government resources to be more adequately distributed to target racially and ethnically marginalized groups, particularly for those who identify under the MENA category. At the same time, these changes present challenges for institutions who must revise their data collection methods and figure out how to meaningfully chart demographic changes over time when categories shift. Once institutions have a more detailed picture of the racial and ethnic diversity of their college campuses, they may also need to adjust programming and resource allocation. They may realize that their actual student population diversity differs from what they thought. Such realizations are the goal of detailed data collection, but it remains to be seen how institutions make sense of these data and the resultant challenges and changes needed.

Dr. Karly Ford is an associate professor at Penn State University.

Dr. Megan Iantosca is an associate professor at The University at Buffalo - SUNY.

They have written on the use and representation of race data in higher education in the Journal of Higher Education and Teachers College Record. They are working on a project that analyzes the 20,000 public comments made on Directive No. 15 to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

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