Ethnic Self-Identification Is Optional for College Admission
Students are often puzzled about how to respond to questions on college applications about race or ethnicity. The questions are required by a federal regulation. The regulation was revised in 2007 and came into effect for the 2009-2010 application season (2010-2011 school year for entering first-year students). The regulation
U.S. Department of Education; Office of the Secretary; Final Guidance on Maintaining, Collecting, and Reporting Racial and Ethnic Data to the U.S. Department of Education [OS]
makes clear that self-identifying ethnicity is OPTIONAL for students in higher education. "As a general matter, while educational institutions and other recipients are required to comply with this guidance, individuals are not required to self-identify their race or ethnicity." Below are examples of current application forms.
That self-identifying by ethnicity is optional has long been clear on the Common Application,
which more than 450 colleges (for example Harvard, Carleton, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Virginia) use as their main or sole application form. The latest version of the Common Application includes a section titled Demographics with a subsection printed on a gray background with the heading "Optional The items with a gray background are optional. No information you provide will be used in a discriminatory manner."
The Common Application optional section includes the federally specified questions about ethnicity:
1. Are you Hispanic/Latino?
O Yes, Hispanic or Latino (including Spain) O No
If yes, please describe your background ________________________________________________
2. Regardless of your answer to the prior question, please indicate how you identify yourself. (Check one or more and describe your background.)
O American Indian or Alaska Native (including all Original Peoples of the Americas)
Are you Enrolled? O Yes O No If yes, please enter Tribal Enrollment Number _________________________
O Asian (including Indian subcontinent and Philippines)
O Black or African American (including Africa and Caribbean)
O Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (Original Peoples)
O White (including Middle Eastern)
Self-identifying ethnicity has also always clearly been optional on the Universal College Application,
which various colleges, including Harvard, accept.
Other colleges use their own application forms, but all must ask an ethnicity question as specified by the federal regulation. But that question is optional in any case by law, whether the college notes that the question is optional or not.
The University of Minnesota has an online application form, and its question is like this:
Ethnicity and Race
Providing the information below is voluntary and will not be used in a discriminatory manner. These questions comply with the U.S. Department of Education's standards for ethnic and racial data collection.
Ethnicity: Are you Hispanic or Latino? Yes No
Race: Please select one or more that apply.
American Indian or Alaska Native
Black or African American
Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
The colleges have to ask for ethnicity data, and have to report them to the federal government, but students don't have to self-identify with any ethnic or racial category. Colleges are NOT required to use self-identified race or ethnicity as an admission factor. Some colleges do and some do not. (Some state colleges and universities are prohibited by state law in their states from considering race as an admission factor.) The questions are asked for federal reporting requirements but may or may not be a significant admission factor at some college you like. At ALL United States colleges, with a limited exception*, it is permissible to decline to answer the questions during the admission process.
High school transcript indication of student race or ethnicity is optional
and is not done at all in whole states of the United States.
Don't worry about it. Self-identify or not as you wish. You are always free to self-identify with humankind as a whole by not self-identifying with any narrower subset of humankind. Recognize that students from a variety of ethnic groups--including whatever group or groups you would identify with, if any--are admitted to each of your favorite colleges each year. On the other hand, admission to some colleges (e.g., Yale or Amherst) is just plain competitive, so lots of outstanding students self-identified with each ethnic group you can imagine (or not self-identified with any group) are not admitted each year. Do your best on your application, apply to a safety, and relax.
*The sole exception to the general statement that self-identifying ethnicity is optional in the college admission process is a college operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for American Indians (Native Americans), e.g.,
SIPI - Admissions and Records
which is a rare example, even among tribal colleges,
Tribal College List -- White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities
of a college that is truly for students of one ethnic group. But even other Bureau of Indian Affairs colleges appear to accept students from a variety of races, and that is definitely true of and reported by other tribal colleges.
(scroll down for federal reported ethnicity of students under Campus Life heading)