Students Choosing Not to Report Ethnicity

Shawn Vestal, Spokesman-Review (Spokane), Jan. 14, 2006

When Rae-Lynn Conger, a junior at Eastern Washington University, is asked to identify her race on forms or applications, she checks an increasingly popular box: Other.

It’s not that Conger doesn’t know which box is correct. She just objects to the premise that her race—she’s white—is considered at all.

“My main rationale for doing it is that I don’t believe my ethnicity or my gender has any bearing on my potential as a person,” said Conger, an Omak, Wash., native who’s president of the campus Republican group.

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A new report suggests that a lot of the “unknowns” are actually white—at least in the three schools surveyed in California—and that the increase in that category is masking an even larger imbalance of racial makeup in the country’s colleges and universities. The report, issued by the James Irvine Foundation, calls for better statistics to measure progress.

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During the 1990s, the percentage of American college students who chose not to report their race or ethnicity nearly doubled, from 3.2 percent to 5.9 percent. The pattern is even more pronounced at Washington State and Eastern Washington universities, where the percentage of students who didn’t report an ethnic category in 2005 was 9.5 percent and 13.2 percent, respectively.

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The increase, and the recent findings in the California survey, suggests to some that the students are playing the “race game,” hiding their whiteness in an age of intense focus on multiculturalism. On the Web site Inside Higher Ed, comments attached to a story about the study consistently focused on the “disadvantage” of being white in college admissions.

“Being white is not widely perceived to be an advantage, so why make it easy to be identified as ‘just another white kid,’” one writer said.

Another wrote, “I would be willing to bet a huge percentage of those who chose not to identify their race were not only white, but male.”

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Colleges’ statistics about diversity and racial proportions may be misleading, according to the results of a recent California study by the James Irvine Foundation’s Campus Diversity Initiative.

The exploratory analysis, a collaboration between the Foundation, Claremont Graduate University, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), showed a strikingly different demographic picture of three college campuses after comparing the institutions’ enrollment statistics with data gathered from an independent national survey of students once they had matriculated.

The researchers found that the post-matriculation survey had a significantly lower percentage of respondents who declined to answer ethnicity questions.

On one campus, for example, the admissions data for one year showed only 42 percent of entering students as white—with a 32 percent “unknown” category—whereas the post-matriculation survey’s results had only 4 percent “unknown,” revealing that at least 57 percent of the student population was white, and potentially up to 70 percent.

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