[Moderator's note: This thread was originally opened on 30 December 2007. This thread has been superseded by a newer thread,
which you are welcome to visit for the latest information in the first few posts of the thread.]
Here's my FAQ on ethnic self-identification questions on college applications.
Self-reporting ethnicity is OPTIONAL on the Common Application, which is what many colleges (for example Harvard) use as their main or sole application form. Self-reporting ethnicity is also optional on the Universal College Application, which various colleges, including Harvard, also accept. Every college in the United States is required by federal law to track voluntarily self-reported ethnic data on students. The colleges ask for this information, and have to report it to the federal government, but students don't have to report it. Harvard's Common Data Set reporting to College Board
College Search - Harvard College - At a Glance
shows, based on that federally mandated data tracking, that 13 percent of its students are "race unknown," so evidently quite a few applicants to Harvard decline to self-report their ethnicity and yet are still admitted. MIT still has its own application form, and asks its own brand of the ethnicity question. Ethnicity questions are optional on the MIT application also, but the application notes that MIT has an "Affirmative Action Plan," with the comment that MIT "guarantees equal opportunity in education to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds." About 6 percent of MIT's enrolled class is counted as "race unknown."
College Search - Massachusetts Institute of Technology - MIT - At a Glance
Columbia University has its own application form, which also makes clear that ethnic self-identification information is optional. Approximately 11 percent of enrolled students at Columbia are reported as "race unknown."
College Search - Columbia University - Columbia - At a Glance
The University of Virginia is another college with its own application form, which says (from the U VA downloadable application):
"Race or Ethnicity (optional): check one or more
". . . .
"The University of Virginia does not discriminate unlawfully in any of its programs, procedures, or practices against any person on the basis of age, color, disability, national or ethnic origin, political affiliation, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or veteran or marital status.The information requested above is for reports the University provides to federal authorities and to other agencies collecting data on equal opportunity for education and employment." Virginia's Common Data Set information shows that about 6 percent of enrolled students are counted as "race unknown."
College Search - University of Virginia - UVA - At a Glance
Don't worry about it. Self-report or not as you wish. Recognize that students from a variety of ethnic groups--including whatever one you would claim for yourself--are admitted to each of your favorite colleges each year. On the other hand, admission to some colleges (e.g., Harvard) is just plain competitive, so lots of outstanding students of each ethnic group you can imagine are not admitted each year. Do your best on your application, apply to a safety, and relax.
College admissions offices refer to the U.S. Census bureau definitions for ethnic categories, because they required to report by federal regulations, and you can look up the definitions on the Web.
Black or African American persons, percent, 2000
White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "White" or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish.
Black or African American. A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "Black, African Am., or Negro," or provide written entries such as African American, Afro American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian.
Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, percent, 2000
Hispanics or Latinos are those people who classified themselves in one of the specific Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino categories listed on the Census 2000 questionnaire -"Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano," "Puerto Rican", or "Cuban" -as well as those who indicate that they are "other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino." Persons who indicated that they are "other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino" include those whose origins are from Spain, the Spanish-speaking countries of Central or South America, the Dominican Republic or people identifying themselves generally as Spanish, Spanish-American, Hispanic, Hispano, Latino, and so on.
Origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.
People who identify their origin as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino may be of any race.
The federal Department of Education has posted guidance to colleges about how they are to ask about student ethnicity and race according to the federally defined categories.
Standard 1-5 - NCES Statistical Standards
You'll see that footnote 2 at the bottom of the webpage says,
The categories are presented in order of numerical frequency in the population, rather than alphabetically. Previous research studies have found that following alphabetical order in the question categories creates difficulties. That is, having "American Indian or Alaska Native" as the first category results in substantial over reporting of this category.
The Department of Education has more recently updated its guidance to colleges on how to ask ethnicity and race questions
and has requested colleges change their forms by the high school class of 2010 application year to ask a two-part question, first inquiring about Hispanic ethnicity and then about race, for each student. The student will still be free to decline to answer.
Unlike elementary and secondary institutions, generally, postsecondary institutions and Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) grantees use self-identification only and do not use observer identification. As discussed elsewhere in this notice, postsecondary institutions and RSA grantees will also be permitted to continue to include a ‘‘race and ethnicity unknown’’ category when reporting data to the Department. This category is being continued in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) because the National Center for Education Statistics’ experience has shown that (1) a substantial number of college students have refused to identify a race and (2) there is often not a convenient mechanism for college administrators to use observer identification.
Students of higher education (and applicants to schools of postsecondary education) are treated as adults, and are explicitly permitted to decline to identify their ethnic or racial category.
So the preferred order for listing racial categories to gather data for federal reporting is to first ask about Hispanic ethnicity, as defined by federal law and self-identified by the student, and then to ask about "race," again as defined by federal law and self-identified by the student, with the preferred order of listing race categories being
Black or African American
American Indian or Alaska Native
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
in that order, and with the student encourage to choose "one or more" race categories.
It would be dishonest, and possibly grounds for revoking an offer of admission, to self-report according to a category that doesn't fit you at all. On the other hand, all of the categories named in federal law are based on self-identification and colleges have no means to double-check every student's self-reporting.
I find it interesting, and full of good hope for this country's future, that more and more college applicants are declining to self-report their ethnicity to colleges,
None of the Above :: Inside Higher Ed
which is everyone's right under law and something that someone of any ethnic categorization might choose to do. People can decide this issue for themselves, but I like to emphasize in my own life, as a member of a "biracial" family, the common humanity my children, my wife, and I share with all our neighbors and compatriots.
Some colleges have reported very large percentages of students as "race unknown" for the entering freshman class of 2007 (college class of 2011).
The latest version of the Minorities in Higher Education Report
has a lot of detailed numbers (all based on reports colleges make to the federal government) about the growth in college enrollment in all the reported ethnic groups, and the growth of the group "race unknown."
Good luck in your applications.