Most colleges and universities are aggressively searching for minority applicants. They want diversity on their campuses. They want students who might have been excluded in the past to feel welcome.
All of which raises a question: Are students telling the truth about their race and ethnicity?
The website Intelligent recently asked white Americans whether they had been truthful about their race when applying to college. (Intelligent is a data-focused website that aims “to create content that helps you live better,” with a focus on students.) The survey was of 1,250 white adults who had applied to college.
The main finding: 34 percent of white Americans who applied to colleges or universities admit to lying about being a racial minority on their application. The most common lie (by 48 percent of those who lied) was to be a Native American.
White men were three times as likely as white women to lie (48 percent to 16 percent).
Older Americans were less likely to admit to lying on their applications. Of those in the survey, 9 percent were under age 25, 24 percent were aged 25 to 34, 40 percent were 35 to 44 and 27 percent were over 44.
“For college applicants who are trying to give their application a boost by pretending to be a racial minority, they may seize on this notion that many Americans of European descent have some Native American DNA in their bloodline,” Kristen Scatton, managing editor of Intelligent, said. “However, research has shown that’s not all that common, particularly among white Americans. But applicants are banking on the fact that no college is going to ask them to provide a DNA sample to verify.”
In terms of why they lied, 57 percent said they believed they would have a better chance of being admitted. Thirty-five percent said they believed that by lying they would get a better aid package.
More than three-fourths of those who lied (77 percent) said they were admitted to colleges that they lied to. And 85 percent of them said they believed their lie helped them.
Admissions experts have varying views of the survey. Most said that colleges do not routinely attempt to verify applicants’ answers on what race or ethnicity they are. Some doubted that such a large percentage are lying. And they said the answers point to misperceptions about the admissions process. But they agreed that lying is a problem.
What the Experts Say
Jerome A. Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California, said via email that he was struck by the high percentage who believed that their lie helped them get in. “Most colleges and universities across the nation are not highly selective, and many are taking every student who they believe can do the work,” he said. “So while the 75 percent admit rate of those who report they lied about their racial/ethnic heritage seems alarming, these students may have been admitted regardless of their deception.”
He added, “In a selective and holistic admission office, and particularly those that are race-aware or race-conscious in their decision-making, race does not stand alone as a criteria. Any mechanistic use of race was prohibited by Supreme Court case law long ago. Instead, race, culture and identity are viewed as inseparable from who the applicant is as a student and future community member. In other words, the diversity a student brings to the table is a key part of who they are, the perspectives they bring, and how they may both take advantage of and contribute to the learning environment. This means that merely checking a box is of dubious advantage. An application that holds together is one in which the activities, essays, community involvements, and recommendations also reflect the culture and perspective of who the student is.”
Lucido also said, “It is not only dishonest but misguided to lie on the application about race or other elements … The triangulation that takes place when trained admission officers read the files typically reveals the reality. And, of course, as the authors of the study note, one can and should be dismissed for lying on the application.”
Emma Steele, senior public relations manager for the Common Application, said all applicants must sign an affirmation before submitting an application. That affirmation says, “I certify that all information submitted in the admission process -- including this application and any other supporting materials -- is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented, and that these documents will become the property of the institution to which I am applying and will not be returned to me. I understand that I may be subject to a range of possible disciplinary actions, including admission revocation, expulsion, or revocation of course credit, grades, and degree should the information I have certified be false.”
She said individual colleges may also have additional steps to deal with applicants who lie about race (or anything) in the admissions process.
Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, “This data truly saddens me. The fact that students would believe they would be discriminated against for being white goes to show that we have a lot of work to do in this country around racial reckoning and understanding systemic inequality.”
He added, “While I do think it’s important for colleges to be aware of this, it should not be yet another thing dropped on admissions officers’ lap. They are not the ethics police. I believe that my colleagues who are admissions officers will ask questions when any part of the application seems unethical, but it’s not their job to comb through applications with a skeptical eye. The reality is the majority of students around the globe are still submitting accurate information to colleges, and will continue to do so.”
Issue Has Come Up Before
The issue of students lying about their ethnic or racial identity has come up before. In 2016, an Indian American man published a book about pretending to be Black to earn admission to medical schools that wouldn’t have given him the time of day with his college grades (and an Asian background). But, the book recounts, he had no problem getting interest from top medical schools as a (faux) Black American.
In 2018, Inside Higher Ed wrote about a guidance counselor’s discomfort over what wasn’t (technically) a lie.
“The first thing this dad says is that the kid’s grandmother was born in Colombia, and he asks, ‘How can we use this to our son’s advantage?’”
In her admissions work, the counselor (who asked that her name not be used since she is talking about a client) said that she has discussed affirmative action and racial and ethnic identity issues with students and their parents. But it’s never been the first question asked. And both the family background (wealthy, able to afford private school for their son) and the son’s academic record (mediocre for one applying to top colleges) added to the counselor’s discomfort.
Then more facts: the student had never been to Colombia, had never met his grandmother and -- aside from his parents’ coaching to play up his connections with Latin America -- didn’t have any thoughts about being Latino (on one side of his family). But he wanted to check the Latino box in his applications.