The new billboard for York College of Pennsylvania features a typical headline for admissions marketing: "Envision the Possibilities at York College." Eight students smile. One is African American, one is Asian American and one woman (with her hair covered) appears to be Muslim.
But in the last week, the billboard turned from a source of pride to one of controversy. The original photograph shot for the billboard (above on left, with the billboard on right) featured two white students who were replaced with two students who reflected diversity. The original photo and the doctored one circulated on social media (with arrows noting the changes), and one of the students in the original photo shoot reached the photographer. She reported to a local news station what he said: “He was, like, yeah, they just wanted a more diverse billboard, so we had to get two other students, and we put them in there. When they went to show the person that had to approve the photo, it wasn’t approved, so they had to rush to fix the problem."
A spokeswoman for York offered this defense of the photograph via email: "This photo reflects the diversity of students who live and learn at York College. All those included are York College students. In an effort to reinforce inclusivity, we attempt to ensure that all students are represented and welcome. "
At the same time, she said, the college was considering replacing the billboard. "We were up against a deadline, but we should have made a better decision," she said.
The students in the version that appeared in the end may all be real York College students, but data from the U.S. Education Department show that the photo as shot originally may in fact better reflect the state of diversity of the college. The data show that 82 percent of York students are white, 6 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent black, 4 percent two or more races and 2 percent Asian, with 1 percent or less for various other categories.
On Sunday afternoon, the college released a second statement, from Ines Ramirez, assistant director of intercultural student life and international student support. "In my opinion, the message of the photo was to show that York College of Pennsylvania welcomes students from diverse backgrounds and to feature our current students. I think we succeeded at that. The photo was not meant to feature the current minority numbers at the college. We would need to use a group of more than 100 students to be reflective of our current data and feature all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientation, religions, etc.," Ramirez said. "As you know, minority student recruitment at mostly Caucasian institutions is very challenging, and we need to make sure our target market is included or featured in our publications. Most students respond to ads that show others like themselves."
York is hardly the first college to be caught using Photoshop to project diversity. After embarrassing incidents at two universities in 2000, many admissions marketing leaders vowed to be more careful. (Perhaps too much time has passed since those images prompted debate on the practice.)
The case that received the most attention was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which used a photograph of cheering Badger fans at an athletic event, and added a black student in the process, for use on the cover of its admissions booklet for prospective students. (Look to left of the raised hand of the woman in the white sweatshirt.)
Using Photoshop to change images raises obvious ethical issues. But before everyone criticizes only York or Wisconsin, consider research that found most colleges (presumably by inviting particular students to pose for photographs) project more diversity in admissions viewbooks than their campuses actually have.
A sociologist at Augsburg University, in Minnesota, together with an undergraduate, in 2008 studied the viewbooks of hundreds of four-year colleges and universities, selected at random. The research team counted the racially identifiable student photographs and also gathered data on the actual makeup of the student bodies.
The findings: black students made up an average of 7.9 percent of students at the colleges studied, but 12.4 percent of those in viewbooks. Asian students are also more likely to be found in viewbooks than on campus, making up 3.3 percent of real students on average and 5.1 percent of portrayed students.
The researchers acknowledge that appearance does not always tell the story of race and ethnicity, and say that they only counted clearly identifiable photos and feel less confident about figures for Latino students. But they report relatively few students whose appearance suggested that they might be Latino, which is striking given the growth in the Latino student body nationally. (A total of 371 colleges were studied, and historically black colleges were excluded; the findings were recently presented at the meeting of the Midwest Sociological Society.)
Looked at another way, the researchers found that more than 75 percent of colleges appeared to overrepresent black students in viewbooks.
So why are black students more prevalent in viewbooks than on campus?
"Black equals diversity for many people. If you show African American students, people think that means your institution is diverse," said Timothy D. Pippert, the sociologist who led the study in an interview with Inside Higher Ed at the time. "They are defining diversity as that face."
Pippert, along with two others, did an expanded version of the study that was published in 2013 as "We've Got Minorities, Yes We Do: Visual Representations of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in College Recruitment Materials" in The Journal of Marketing for Higher Education. In that study, the researchers found that the group most significantly overrepresented was black students, who made up an average of 7.4 percent of students at the institutions studied but 15.1 percent of the images in admissions brochures. Among all institutions, black students were overrepresented (in terms of photos in materials) at 81.2 percent of institutions.
The authors write that these issues matter to students, particularly minority students evaluating an institution. "With little in-depth knowledge of an institution, most prospective students come to rely heavily on a university's image when making enrollment decisions. When that image is distorted, there may be real issues for students."
Nancy Leong, a professor of law at the University of Denver, has written about what she calls "fake diversity" in college materials and also those used by political groups, among other organizations.
In an interview, she said, "I do have some sympathy for schools that want to portray themselves as inclusive through visual representations in their materials. I understand what they are trying to do, which is to say, 'This is a good place for people of color.'"
But she added that "the problem is that it is forcing attention and resources on aesthetic appearances instead of anything substantive." By substantive, she said she means adding financial aid for disadvantaged students, or stepping up recruiting efforts at high schools with many students from racial and ethnic groups not currently attending the institution in significant numbers.
Of colleges that have a larger share of minority students in admissions materials than in the student body, Leong said, "I don't think their intentions are bad, but they are trying to take a shortcut and to manage the appearance of something that that they haven't achieved."
At colleges with meaningful efforts to recruit and retain minority students, and to promote inclusivity, she said, "You don't have to pose a picture. You don't have to do Photoshop. You can just go to the student center and point a camera in any direction."