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.
Conger and other “others” are one of the fastest-growing categories of students, as universities try to measure and increase their enrollments of ethnic minorities. As the figures rise, some university officials have suggested that a part of the reason is the increase of multiracial students or others who don’t see their specific circumstances reflected in the five broad categories used in higher education – white, African American, Native American, Asian American and Hispanic.
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.
“With this more accurate data, we will have not only a better sense of the true racial/ethnic composition of our colleges and universities, but also a better gauge of the access various students have to, and the success they have through, higher education,” the report says.
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.
At the University of Idaho, the figure has stayed fairly level over the last decade. However, at 7.8 percent, it’s a bigger portion of the student population than the 7 percent of identified minorities. At Gonzaga University in Spokane, the percentage of unknown students is at 7.6 percent – up slightly from recent years.
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.”
Francisco Salinas, the head of the UI’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said he’s seen a different motivation for checking the “other” box. Some people just don’t see themselves – their specific ethnicities – reflected in the five categories.
“If I’m Puerto Rican, I may be very proud to be Puerto Rican and don’t want to be subsumed into an umbrella population” of Hispanics, he said.
Similarly, many Native Americans pride themselves on their tribal affiliations, which aren’t reflected in the figures either. Sometimes the university is charged with administering a scholarship for a Basque student or a member of a certain tribe – and the university’s categories provide no help there.
“For what we’re trying to do, it is nearly that point where we maybe need a more refined tool,” he said.
For many university officials, the unreported category has been seen as a likely place for multiracial students to identify themselves – and some have suggested that minority enrollments are actually higher than they seem for this reason.
“This study directly challenges that assumption and primes the field for further research in this area,” says the new report.
The report is limited and may not be applicable to all colleges. The foundation studied enrollment at three private California colleges, comparing data provided by students at two different times – when they applied and during their first year in school.
In the survey of first-year students, researchers consistently found more white students and fewer unknowns than they did in the applications. The percentage of white students in the first-year survey were between 14 and 28 percentage points higher than those in the applications.
“While there is variation among the three campuses in this study, overall, the results suggest that a sizeable portion of students in the unknown category are white, in addition to multiracial students who may have selected white as one of their categories,” the report says.
It also says that individual institutions and the country’s overall network of higher education need to improve accounting of ethnic diversity. The report notes that the use of unknown categories lets colleges distort their demographic makeup; the authors cite examples where minority students were disappointed when they arrived on campus, because there were fewer minority students than admissions statistics had shown.
Conger said that she understands the interest in diversity among university officials, but she believes categorizing people by race or gender is simplistic and unfair. The College Republicans hosted an “affirmative action bake sale” at EWU last year, which offered different prices on items to different races, in an effort to satirize the impact of affirmative action, she said.
Salinas said he knows that there’s a reaction against diversity efforts among some students and members of the general population, but it’s important for universities to ensure they’re representative of the population at large – something regional universities don’t do for many ethnic populations.
He said the five-category system has flaws and will likely see some revisions in the future.
“We need more refinement of the tools,” he said. “That’s not to say the tools haven’t been useful.”