What Does the Education Dept. Know About Race?

Our post last week on minority enrollment and diversity at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor sparked a lively debate in the comments section about demographic data and diversity.

“I must admit that I am scratching my head,” one reader, Candis Best, wrote in response to the post. “Minority enrollment is down, but the school isn’t less diverse?,” she asked. “Diversity isn’t about statistics. It is about relationships.”

Ms. Best is, of course, correct that diversity is more than percentages and bar charts. “Diversity” includes identities that cross genders, cultures, and other ways people define themselves. A diverse campus involves interactions among students and faculty and staff members, all trading and sharing points of view and gaining understanding as they learn from others’ backgrounds.

Nevertheless, data and statistics are able to provide some insights into the makeup of a population and the degree to which that population consists of people associated with various groups.

Before we explore some different ways of measuring diversity through data and statistics, it’s worthwhile to look first to the demographic data themselves. What do the data show? What can’t they measure? And what are some of the complications and pitfalls of using such data to measure racial and ethnic diversity?

Categorizing Race and Ethnicity

The first factor that complicates any discussion of race and ethnicity is how to categorize a person’s race in the first place. Before the 2000 Census, people were asked to check a box indicating their race. The selections were mutually exclusive. You were either white or black. Hispanic or Asian. By 2000, though, a cultural shift had caused people to think about racial categories not as distinct groups but as elements that can combine to form a person’s identity. People could now check multiple boxes.

Yet that shift didn’t affect the Department of Education’s data collection for nearly 10 years. In 2009 the National Center for Education Statistics, for the first time, made it possible for colleges and universities to report students as members of two or more races. (Colleges could still opt for the old method, which did not allow multiple selections. But in 2010 that option was no longer available.)

Students who checked multiple boxes on their college applications were grouped by the Education Department in a single new category: “two or more races.” (That differed from the Census Bureau’s method, which put people into any of the groups with which they identified.)

The Education Department’s approach means that someone who ticks both the “white” and “Asian” boxes is grouped in the department’s database with someone who ticks the “white” and “black” boxes. Meanwhile, anyone who selects “Hispanic,” whether or not he or she selects another racial category, is counted in the Hispanic category.

The change that occurred in 2009-10 makes it difficult to track trends in demographics from before that time through to more-recent years.

Before 2009 someone with one black parent and one white parent would have had to select either black or white. The same student, applying to college in 2010, now had the option of selecting two or more races.

So a drop in the number of black students reported at a university from 2009 to 2010, as we noted at the University of Michigan, doesn’t necessarily mean that there were actually fewer black students. It could also mean that some of the students who would have been counted in the black category before 2010 were instead counted in the two-or-more-races category under the new reporting methods.

It’s also likely that some racial and ethnic categories appear to include fewer students than they really ought to. That’s because the Department of Education also includes a nonracial category in its race and ethnicity data: immigration status. As a result, someone who selects “non-U.S. citizen” is pulled out from any other category and placed into that one.

While that methodology has remained consistent over the years, it nevertheless stands to reason that separating those students from the ethnic groups would lower some of the numbers—probably Hispanic and Asian students in particular—more than others.

It’s easy to see how those racial and ethnic classifications—and the changes that were made in them—would complicate efforts to use the data to measure racial diversity on campuses.

Knowing about the pitfalls of the data, though, can help us determine and evaluate different ways of measuring racial diversity on a college campus—something we’ll explore in our next post.

Correction (4/28/2014, 6:07 p.m.): A student who self-identifies as both Hispanic and black is categorized by the Education Department as Hispanic, not as two or more races, as a previous version of this post stated. The post has been corrected.

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