Checking the Race Box: Should College Applicants Play All of Their Race Cards?

6 years ago

College applications give students plenty to fret about. The applications’ race and ethnicity questions should be one of the easy sections, just boxes to check. But evidently, they are not. And even though this short portion of all college applications is optional, it is causing applicants, especially multi-racial students, angst and agonizing indecision.

Now that college applications have expanded their ethnic and racial choices, students can identify all of their racial backgrounds if they want to. The Universal College App, for example, lists these choices:


  • Hispanic/Latino
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • Asian
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Black/African American
  • White


But it’s not so clear if this kind of full disclosure is a help or a hindrance to applicants’ admission chances.

The hesitation on the race question centers mostly on affirmative action concerns. Now that we are over forty years down the affirmative action road, we all can acknowledge that there have been some good and not so good results. While more students of color have been afforded the opportunity to attend college, they have had to function under the shadow of affirmative action stigma and undisclosed and unclear school diversity policies.

As the New York Times reports, students are concerned about how they will be perceived by admissions decision-makers and ultimately by the college community at large if they self-identify as one race or all of their races. Aia Sarycheva, 18, who is of Russian (mother) and Sudanese (father) descent, told the Times that she checked both the black and the white boxes, not because she sought preference. This stellar scholar and future Yale student said she identified her ethnicities because they reflect who she is. But she said she was aware that others would assume she got in because she is black.

With regard to checking or not checking the race boxes, the general sentiment among students seems to be that applicants are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. African-American peers may accuse bi- or multi-racial kids for trying to gain preference by claiming to be “all black” or trying to gain an advantage by identifying as black “only at application time.” And their Caucasian colleagues might assume that the student gained admission preferences whether they actually identified with an under-represented group or not. Often, with this assumption comes the implication that students-of-color are undeserving of, and unqualified for, their acceptances.

This assumption that people-of-color have been placed in coveted positions solely due to affirmative action is still quite widespread today, and not just on college campuses. With regard to college admissions, it is extremely detrimental to the students who, in the midst of attaining their college dreams, are often called to question about their qualifications. Stanford researchers have found that this internalization of doubt is wreaking havoc on college student achievement. Based on studies that connect poor achievement to negative stereotyping (one study showed that black, Latino, and women math and science students perform poorly when their mistakes seem to confirm a negative stereotype about their group, and other studies indicate that negative stereotypes can prevent minority students from learning new academic material), Professors Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen devised a way to help students find belonging in college and thus perform better. Professor Walton says:

For students that are underrepresented, from social groups that are under-represented in an academic setting, who face negative stereotypes about their group and about their group’s intellectual ability, they may be especially likely to wonder, to feel uncertain, about whether they belong. They seem unsettled. They may be trying more than others to really figure out whether they belong.

This uncertainty leads to insecurity and fatalism which can result in poor performance. The Stanford professors found that with a short exercise designed to show the students that their difficulties were not unique to them or their group, their academic performances greatly improved.

The fact that this kind of self-consciousness and negative messaging has reached students as early as the application process is troublesome. The implications of these messages as they apply to college admissions are so mixed and confusing. They tell students that they may have an advantage in the college sorting process if they have minority status. But they also suggest that they are somehow lacking and in need of extra help, and that once they get in, they are lesser students. For bi-racial students who are part white, this is a conundrum, indeed. Do their under-represented halves compensate for their privileged halves? Do they dare reap the benefits of both? Natasha Scott of Maryland, whose mother is Asian and father is Black, says this: “It pains me to say this, but putting down black might help my admissions chances and putting down Asian might hurt it.” For Natasha and others similarly situated, the quandary is more complicated than it may appear.

A 2009 study showed that biracial college applicants take a risk when they identify themselves as bi-racial. Bi-racial students, the study found, must contend with racist stereotypes unique to them. The study discovered that biracial people may be viewed as having less favorable traits (such as being “less warm”) than people who are mono-racial and at the same time, they are viewed as less qualified for minority scholarships. According to the study, a biracial student takes a risk of invoking prejudices that hurt their admission chances by claiming both or all racial backgrounds. They risk falling through the desirability crack.

Susan Saulny and Jacques Steinberg at point out what might be part of the reason for the study’s outcome -- that biracial families tend to be more affluent than families with two black parents. This fact supports the assumption that biracial applicant’s situations fall outside of affirmative action purposes. Assumptions like this could, however, cause admissions decisions to go in either direction. Schools might pass on multi-racial students because they feel these students are less worthy of assistance. On the other hand, schools may begin to prefer a biracial student who will satisfy affirmative action numbers, while requiring less financial aid.

The New York Times article suggests that students are losing sleep over this issue. And for good reason. There has not been much in the way of university guidance about how much the ethnicity of an applicant counts toward admissions or how these difficult cases of multi-racialism are decided upon. And so they are left to figure it out on their own.

What students should perhaps remember is that while schools may be committed to increasing their minority numbers, almost all schools’ their affirmative action efforts are embedded in a diversity policy. As one college admissions director told me, universities want to fill their freshman classes with a well-rounded, diverse and interesting group of scholars. Admittees must be scholars first. And then they must be individuals who bring a unique background and perspective to their study and by extension, to the university community. Which or how many race/ethnicity boxes checked is not so important as the ways that a student’s race, ethnic background and history may be brought to bear on their suitability as a great addition to the university. If this is truly how diversity admissions works, students whose only indication of their racial or ethnic identity is the checked box, will likely not reap the benefits of such a disclosure. The question is, in the super-secret closed door sessions of college admissions decision-makers, is this really how diversity determinations play out?

author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers

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