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Why Do Colleges Ask for Your Race on Admission Forms?

Race is arguably one of the most divisive issues that U.S. higher education institutions face. If you Google anything about race and college admissions, you’ll find heated discussions supporting both sides of the controversy. So why do colleges ask for this?

Colleges ask for your race on admissions forms to promote diversity on campus. Although academic merit is still a significant factor in whether you get admitted or not, your racial background also gets considered in the interest of “enriching the campus experience,” as one 2020 survey puts it. 

Whichever side of the issue you’re on, you’ll inevitably confront it as an incoming college student. In this article, however, I will only cover the practical aspects of race in the context of college admission forms, namely: 

  • How to interpret the term “race.” 
  • What race options are available.
  • Whether you should disclose your race.
  • What difference race makes in practice.  
Why colleges request race on applications.

The Meaning of Race On Admission Forms

Whether you’re a U.S. citizen or not, you may wonder what “race” and “ethnicity” mean. After all, those are the two categories that colleges use. The U.S. is one of the most diverse countries on the planet.

Some may argue that racial profiling in college admissions encourages discrimination, while others claim the opposite (source).

“Race” refers to “socially significant” physical attributes, according to the American Sociological Association (ASA). The most common example is skin color, differentiating “whites” from “blacks.” 

Those who have skin tones between white and black or brown are also considered distinct races (source).

Meanwhile, ASA defines “ethnicity” as the shared cultural aspects like language and belief systems. In the United States, Hispanics (native Spanish speakers) and Latinos (those who are or trace their ancestry to immigrants from Latin American countries) are a distinct ethnicity since they’re the second-largest group in the U.S. next to whites (source).

Sources: Vox and US Census Bureau

In the next section, I will cover the five major race categories you’ll encounter on college application forms. 

Race Options on College Application Forms

In the U.S., the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) identifies five minimum race categories according to its revised 1997 standards. As noted earlier, the minimum ethnic categories are “Hispanic/Latino” and “Not Hispanic/Latino” (source).

The race options on college application forms are:

  • American Indian or Alaskan Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • White

Let’s unpack what these race options mean. 

American Indian or Alaskan Native

If you identify as “American Indian” or “Alaskan Native,” you must satisfy both criteria below (source):

  • You or your ancestors trace your origins to the “original peoples,” or Native Americans, of the North and South American continents.
  • You must still have “tribal affiliation” or “community attachment.” 

Note that “American Indian” is different from “Indian American,” the latter of whom are Asians.

Asian

“Asians” refer to those who originate from people in the Asian continent, specifically: 

  • The Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh
  • East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea)
  • Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia)

In some applications, you may also find subcategories for “Asian”:

  • Asian Indian
  • Chinese
  • Filipino
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Vietnamese
  • Other Asian   

Black or African American

“Black” or “African American” refers to anyone descended from the “black racial groups” of Africa. “African American” excludes whites from North Africa and South Africa.

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

If you trace your ancestry to the original peoples of Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, such as Papua New Guinea, Guam, American Samoa, or Fiji, you fall under this category. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Pacific Islands” do not include Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Japanese archipelago.

White

“White” usually refers to those who originate from the European continent. It can also refer to Middle Easterners and whites from North and South Africa. This category should also be pretty self-explanatory unless you’re of mixed heritage that includes the other race categories on this list. 

Should I Disclose My Race on College Applications?

You may not want to disclose your race for whatever reason. Maybe you’re worried it will cause the admissions director to judge your application unfairly. But here’s the deal…

You should disclose your race on your college application. Otherwise, you cannot protect yourself from discrimination as laid out in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also, colleges need your racial information to evaluate your application holistically.

Source: US Department of Labor

At this point, you probably think: “Okay, I’ll have legal protections if I disclose my race. How else will I benefit from disclosing my race as a college student?” That’s what we’ll cover in the next section. 

How Much Race Matters in College Admissions

If you want to know whether your race impacts your chances of getting admitted, the shortest answer is: It does. 

Race is a significant factor in college admissions. The racial profiling of incoming students ensures that no single racial or ethnic group dominates a school’s population makeup. Further, race statistics can spotlight any educational issues specific groups have (source).

For example, a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicates that Asians comprise over half of adults age 25 and older who completed a bachelor’s degree (54%) compared to blacks (21%) and Hispanics (15%). 

The latter two often experience prejudice regarding their academic ability and educational attainment, which may account for their relatively lower graduation rates (source).

Conclusion

Whatever your stance on the issue, if you’re an incoming college student in the U.S., it helps to understand what “race” and “ethnicity” are within a U.S. context. That way, you can fill out the forms appropriately, enjoy legal protections, and maybe weigh in on the issue of how much race should affect the daily lives of Americans.

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