A Multi-Part Question

Wording in the Common Application regarding ethnicity is causing headaches for students and institutions trying to gauge diversity.
September 23, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- For many college applicants with multiracial backgrounds, college counselors and admissions officers say, the hardest part of applying to college isn’t identifying the right colleges to apply to or crafting essays. It’s figuring out which box to check when it comes to race.

With more students coming from multiracial backgrounds and colleges and universities becoming increasingly nuanced in how they ask about and measure diversity, students and institutions alike are trying to figure out how to adequately account for diversity in the application process. The issues faced by multiracial college applicants were a major topic of discussion here Thursday as college counselors convened for the annual meeting of the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

In particular, counselors said, recent changes in the structure of application questions about racial and ethnic background have led to confusion among students -- particularly Latino students -- about how they should identify themselves in the process. The questions are causing stress for students, and institutions are finding the data more convoluted, and sometimes less useful, than before.

Much of the admissions officers' concern centered on how the Common Application, which is used by 460 colleges, asks students about their ethnic and racial identity. Since 2009, in response to changes in federal reporting requirements, ethnicity has been a two-part question on the application, and other institutions' applications have similar language.

The first part asks students to say whether they identify as Latino or Hispanic. The second part of the question asks them -- regardless of how they answered the previous question -- to identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or white. Students can check as many boxes as they’d like in the second question, and both questions are optional.

Before the change, universities were just required to ask and report whether students identified themselves as African American/Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan Native, or White, though many institutions also allowed students to choose multiracial. In most instances, students could only select one category. The change in the wording was motivated by a change to what the federal government required colleges to report when it came to data, and the same language was used in the 2010 census.

When the Common Application and other institutions implemented the wording change, many colleges saw an increase in the number of students identifying as multiracial. Admissions officers said Latino or Hispanic students, many of whom didn't traditionally identify as any other ethnicity but felt obligated to answer the second question, drove the increase. Several counselors said the new wording also motivated students who previously would have identified as only one race -- such as a black student whose great-grandfather was white -- to identify as more than one race.

Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, said that he regularly hears about issues with the questions in the application but that, because of the federal reporting requirements, there isn’t much leeway for changing the questions. “If there was some way that we could make these questions more understandable to kids, we would do it,” he said.

Several admissions counselors at Thursday’s session said they have seen an increase in the number of students asking them how to answer such questions.

Admissions officials said the new wording creates problems not only for students, but also for colleges and universities. Institutions want to be able to provide the right resources for students from different backgrounds once they're on a campus, counselors said. Different resources might be needed for a multiracial student than for one who identifies as having a single ethnicity.

“What you collect for the feds and what you want to present internally might be different,” said Jarrid Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid at the California Institute of Technology. “We can’t always break out the multiracial data in ways that we want to.”

Jim Rawlins, executive director of admissions at Colorado State University, said his institution added a supplemental question about whether students identify as multiracial. That only added more layers of complexity. “We have students who check that box who only checked one of the above boxes, and students who checked more than one of the above boxes who don’t check that box.”

There is also a concern that students might not be authentic in how they answer questions about race and ethnicity, seeking an edge in the application process by identifying as multiracial when they really consider themselves to be only one race.

Asking about racial and ethnic identity in applications is complicated by the fact that many multiracial students have not confronted the question of identity, and most have not made solid determinations about it, by the time they’re applying to college, said Kendall Reid-Webster, a counselor at the Marist School, in Atlanta, who regularly works with students and adults who are struggling with the issue of racial identity.

Bonnie Hall, associate director of admissions at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said institutions should take time to examine what they are using the data for. If an institution is just using the questions to fill quotas of different races on campus, then they're not really pursuing diversity. If they're using it to try create a variety of perspectives on campus, then the new questions might help them better identify what students can bring. “What is the ultimate goal?” she asked the crowd at the session Thursday. “I would hope that everyone’s answer is real diversity on campus.”


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