Which Groups Are Counted?

Potential revisions to the OMB's standards for collecting data on race and ethnicity draw interest from medical educators and anthropologists.

November 7, 2016

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget is considering revisions to its standards for collection of federal data on race and ethnicity -- the first change those standards would see since 1997.

The possible revisions have largely gone unremarked upon in academe. Out of about 400 public comments received by the OMB before a midnight Oct. 31 deadline, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Anthropological Association were the only higher education groups to respond.

But the potential revisions have drawn interest from the medical and health care community, most prominently in comments submitted by the AAMC. Growing diversity in the U.S. population and a better understanding of how to collect data on race and ethnicity make additional revisions important, said Philip Alberti, the senior director of health equity research and policy at the association.

"More accurate data collection helps identify where health and health care disparities are in local communities, so we can better identify where more work needs to be done and better develop interventions with community partners," Alberti said.

AAMC is interested in proposed data revisions both to better understand the populations their member institutions serve and to better assess the pipeline of medical students attending those institutions, he said.

"It's crucial to develop a culturally competent workforce that's able to provide the best care for all patients," Alberti said. "A diverse and inclusive work force is better able to partner with communities."

The OMB has said it is examining revisions to data collection standards in four areas:

  • Using a combined question to identify race/ethnicity instead of two separate questions.
  • Creating a separate racial subcategory for Middle Eastern/North African respondents.
  • Clarifying that minimum collection data collection standards do not limit agencies from gathering more detailed demographic data.
  • Revising terminology used for race and ethnicity classifications.

Talks of revisions to racial data collection standards have come up at the Department of Education as recently as 2006.

The first possible revision would mean moving away from a format where a respondent is first asked whether they identify as Hispanic or non-Hispanic, then asked if they are white, black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, or Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Proponents of changing that format say Hispanic respondents often choose that designation in the first part and then leave the second part blank, possibly obscuring the number of Hispanic people. (Note: This item was corrected from an earlier version that misstated the race/ethnicity question.) 

C. Anthony Broh, a higher education consultant who specializes in topics like college access and assessment, said asking one question on race and ethnicity, instead of two -- a position backed by AAMC -- makes sense because the OMB's own data indicates two questions creates confusion, especially for Hispanic or Latino survey respondents. A survey question about race and ethnicity typically asks whether a respondent is Hispanic or non-Hispanic, then asks for a respondent's race. That leads to many Hispanic respondents to leave the second question blank, Broh said.

"The implication is that if you're Hispanic, it doesn't matter what else you say," he said.

But some Hispanic education groups have criticized proposals in the past to move away from the two-question format for asking about race and ethnicity.

OMB sets the data collection standards that all other federal agencies follow. But the lack of input from major higher ed policy organizations may indicate the early stages in the process for any potential changes.

AAMC in its written comments on the potential revisions also backed the creation of a subcategory for Middle Eastern and North African respondents. The group also asked OMB to clarify that the minimum data collection standards set by the agency wouldn't preclude agencies from getting more granular data on race and ethnicity.

The Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum was among a number of health advocacy groups to comment on the revised standards. Kathy Ko Chin, president of the group, called on the OMB in submitted comments to require all federal agencies to collect and disseminate disaggregated data on Asian-Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. "Research has shown that disaggregated data on AA and NHPI populations have an important and meaningful impact on how programs and services are made available to specific AA and NHPI groups and in dispelling the 'model minority' myth that all Asian-Americans are well educated, wealthy and healthy," she wrote.

Anthropologists' Views

The American Anthropological Association based its approach on scholarship on race and ethnicity.

"We propose to combine the questions about race and ethnicity into a single, clearer question about social group self-identification. A possible wording: With which of the following ethnicities or racial groups do you most closely identify?" said comments submitted by the anthropology association.

"The terms 'race' and 'ethnicity' have no clear popular understanding. As well, both iterations of OMB Directive 15 have noted the absence of science or anthropology in their conceptualization. The lack of clarity about the meaning of race and ethnicity has doubtlessly caused confusion among respondents and reduced the reliability of these questions," the comments said. "The continued use of separate race and ethnicity questions adds complexity and does not serve a scientific or social purpose."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top