An End to Picking One Box

After years of study, Education Department issues plan for colleges to report racial and ethnic data without forcing students to choose one category.
August 8, 2006

More than 6.8 million people in the 2000 Census of the United States picked more than one racial or ethnic category in which to place themselves. And 40 percent of them were under the age of 18, suggesting that millions will be arriving on campuses where the standard "pick one box" approach to race and ethnicity may no longer work.

On Monday, the U.S. Education Department -- following nearly nine years of study and planning -- released draft guidance for colleges on how to change the way they collect and report information about students' race and ethnicity. The system proposed by the department would for the first time allow students to pick multiple boxes, with colleges reporting all of those who checked multiple boxes in a new "two or more races" category. In addition, the new system changes the way data will be gathered about Latino students and divides the "Asian and Pacific Islander" category into two distinct groups.

Experts on education statistics generally praised the changes, saying that they reflect the reality that race and ethnicity in the United States do not fit into neat categories. Many predicted that the guidance -- if formally adopted, as is expected -- would encourage colleges to adopt a similar approach on admissions forms. And several warned that the changes could have important policy ramifications, as the enrollment levels of some groups may appear to decrease. The big question mark for many remains whether these changes will stop the growth in the number of students who refuse to answer questions on race and ethnicity.

The proposed change that has been most sought in the new guidance concerns those who identify themselves as being from more than one racial or ethnic group. Previously, colleges had to report single identities. Some colleges have changed their admissions and other forms to allow people to check multiple boxes for some college purposes, but such institutions still had to use a traditional system for reporting data to the government. As a result, many colleges have held off on making a general change until the Education Department released its guidance. The department's policies are based on directives from the White House Office of Management and Budget in 1997, so the long waiting period has been frustrating to many college officials and advocates for students of multiple races.

"We've been waiting for this to happen. No student should be forced to pick a single identity," said Amanda Erekson of the Mavin Foundation, which pushes for the rights of multi-ethnic people. (The name comes from a Yiddish word for one who is an expert on something, and was selected by Matt Kelley, who founded the group in 1998 as a freshman at Wesleyan University.)

Erekson said that people like herself -- she has Japanese-American and white ancestors -- must navigate issues that don't fit neatly into racial politics. When she was a student at Colgate University a few years ago, she was involved with minority groups, but startled some because she looks white.

Only 27 percent of colleges have policies that allow students like Erekson to avoid picking a single box, according to a report, "One Box Isn't Enough," released last year by the foundation. Erekson said that many college officials said that they would change once the Education Department announced its plans for adopting the 1997 OMB approach.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said it was "high time" for the Education Department to offer guidance, and predicted that most colleges would end up changing their systems to make them consistent.

Nassirian said that people need to be prepared that with the new system there will be a "discontinuity" with data previously collected. But he said that was an issue that would accompany any change and that the problems would be worked out over time.

Eugene Anderson, associate director of national initiatives at the American Council on Education, where he formerly was the lead researcher for reports on student demographics, predicted that several minority groups would see apparent slides in enrollment that might not reflect a real shift. While many students have complained about being forced to pick a single race, he said that many have done so anyway.

"The challenge is how this relates to historical data," Anderson said. "The majority of people who are multiracial have connected to a primary ethnicity and in the past they were counted in that one ethnicity and now they would not."

He predicted that there would be apparent drops in black, American Indian, and  Asian enrollment, the latter drop accentuated by a splitting off of Pacific Islander from the Asian category. So a student with a Japanese-American father and a Pacific Islander mother would have shown up previously as Asian, but would now appear just in the "two or more" category. That category will not have breakouts so nationally, there will not be data indicating how many students there come from which combination of groups.

The data are important, Anderson said, because colleges examine such figures to look for gaps in their recruiting strategies or the success of their retention programs. Some government and foundation programs also are restricted to colleges with certain demographics.

Experts on Latino enrollment patterns predicted that changes proposed by the department would increase the participation of Latino students in surveys on race and ethnicity. The department has suggested that colleges use an approach similar to that used by the Census Bureau, but that differs from the past practice of many colleges, which have just included Latino or Hispanic as a racial category, or which have asked about Latino status after a racial category listing that did not include Latinos.

The system proposed by the department would have colleges ask students first if they are Latino or Hispanic, with just a yes/no answer. Then the second question would provide a choice of races: American Indian, Asian, African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or white. Because Latino students identify with multiple racial groups (or none), their total numbers would be clear by the first question, but they would not be restricted in how they want to identify themselves.

Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a group that focuses on Hispanic higher education issues, said that many Latino students have been discouraged by past configurations of these questions and so have not answered at all. By asking about Latino or Hispanic identity first, colleges should get more participation "and more clarity," she said.

"By asking up front, and using the two-question approach, you are going to get the numbers," she added.

Where experts are uncertain about the numbers are with students who are not providing information about their racial background at all. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of students in higher education for whom race is unknown increased by 100 percent, to 938,000 -- and those numbers have increased further, to over 1 million, since then. The identities of these students and their motivations have become the subject of considerable interest -- with some speculating that many of these students are white and others disagreeing.

Some believe that white students are refusing to answer the question, fearing that a non-minority answer may hurt their chances of admission or financial aid. But other researchers counter that the trend is not restricted to competitive institutions and turns up in open-admissions institutions as well. Advocates for students of multiple identities have argued that many of these students avoid racial choices that force them to select a single category, and that an approach like the one the Education Department is now suggesting would encourage more of them to answer the question.

But the most common answer to the question of how a new system might change those refusing to answer was: Only time will tell.

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