Demographic change as a large group of people as a changing diversity in a population.

What Race And Ethnicity Data Doesn’t Tell Us About College Students

Colleges use federal categories for race and ethnicity to try and guide admissions and support equity in education – but what if those categories conceal more information than they provide?

That’s the conclusion of Common App, the non-profit that runs the “common application” for more than 1,000 colleges. It conducted an analysis of students who have applied to colleges, and it found that broad categories like “Asian” and “Latino” may not actually tell colleges what they want to know.  

“In general,” the report states, “we find that examining nearly any data point at the typical level of standard racial/ethnic categories can conceal meaningful differences within those categories, differences which are only revealed at the more detailed racial/ethnic background level.”

For example, are more students who identify as “Asians” applying to college?  As an aggregate, yes – applications among “Asians” to college have increased  71% since 2013-2014; but applications by people who list their background as from countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh increased by 169% – twice as much – while applications from people of Japanese descent declined by 4%.  

The aggregated numbers don’t tell the same stories that specific statistics do.  

Similar issues arise with applications from students of Latinx and multi-racial backgrounds. 

“(M)ultiracial individuals are only recorded as having “Two or more races,” with no additional explanation as to what those races may be,” the authors note. ”This is of particular relevance given that Hispanic/Latinx and multiracial applicants are two of the fastest-growing racial/ethnic identities in our applicant pool.”

These categories can be incredibly useful when they’re accurate, but all too often they don’t actually represent a particular student’s life experiences. On one hand, groups like Latinx have been historically disenfranchised, even as they represent the future of California’s economy. On the other hand, individual experiences are never reducible to group identity. Every student’s challenges are unique. This is especially relevant, and complicated, for California: one of the most diverse states in the nation, with one of the most diverse student bodies.  

“When we treat extremely diverse communities of people as one monolithic group, we lose the opportunity to look for granular trends and offer individualized support,” said Ted Lai, Calbright’s Vice-President of Student Services and Success. “This is especially true of the Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander community and the Latinx/Hispanic community.”

Lai notes that in particular “The AANHPI community, it’s often thought of as not needing support, but the disparity between the highest earners and lowest earners is the greatest in that community compared to other ethnic groups. Additionally, when you begin to disaggregate the data, you see that specific southeast Asian, south Asian, and Pacific Islander communities are among the lowest in household income and college education.”

So what’s a college to do?  At Calbright, our answer is: talk to our students. 

Data on group outcomes and struggles is useful when it helps colleges figure out what questions to ask and what to look for;  it gets in the way when colleges use it as a justification not to talk to their students as individuals, to ask questions and to listen to answers.  To effectively reach diverse and traditionally disenfranchised populations, we have to find ways to make online education even more personal and accessible to individuals.  

Lai notes that the systems may be slowly taking on this insight, noting that President Biden signed an executive order in May 2021 that included new best practices in disaggregating data on specific ethnic groups.  

“It’s a start,” Lai said, “and hopefully it will continue.”

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