Welcome to Race on Campus. Over the years, colleges have employed a number of tactics to create the appearance of a more diverse student body than the one the institution actually has. Our Adrienne Lu reports on why this is still happening today.

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Under the Banner of Diversity

While walking to class one day this spring at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Omar Rashad, a senior, noticed a banner featuring the face of a Black graduate. As he kept walking, he spotted another banner featuring a Black graduate. The next banner he came across showed a woman wearing a head scarf.

Rashad, a journalism major, was curious to learn how well the diversity represented on the banners, which featured recent alumni, matched up with the student population at Cal Poly. He determined that half of the 12 people appearing on the banners were students of color, compared with 46 percent of the student body. But while a quarter of the banners featured Black students, they make up only 0.8 percent of Cal Poly’s student body. Cal Poly is the least diverse public university in California and has the lowest percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students.

Rashad wrote an article about the discrepancy, which included interviews with two of the Black alumni featured on the banners. The alumni said the university had not asked if they could use their images on the banners, and they raised questions about the university’s intentions.

An Old Problem

Cal Poly is not alone among colleges in presenting a more diverse picture of its student body than it actually has. Colleges have employed various tactics, from offering questionable statistics to digitally altering photographs to replace white faces with brown ones.

More than 20 years ago, the University of Wisconsin at Madison apologized for digitally adding the face of a Black student into a photograph of students cheering at a football game, which was featured on the cover of an admissions brochure. In 2019, a local TV-news station reported that York College of Pennsylvania edited two minority students into a billboard for the college.

Timothy D. Pippert, a sociology professor at Augsburg University, co-authored a paper published in 2013, analyzing more than 10,000 photographs from the admissions brochures of 165 U.S. four-year colleges. The study’s authors wrote that the consistency with which institutions present misleading depictions of racial diversity lead them to believe that it is intentional and near universal. “It is clear that racial diversity is being used as a commodity in the marketing of higher education, and presenting an image of diversity is more important than accurately portraying the student body.”

The study found that Black students were overrepresented in admissions brochures by nearly twice their actual numbers on campuses, more than any other racial or ethnic group. Pippert said in an interview that he was struck by the way his study’s findings were mirrored in the overrepresentation of Black students on the banners at Cal Poly.

“I think we are conditioned … to think of diversity first and foremost as far as race,” Pippert said. “It’s the way that we talk about diversity. It typically is a Black-white dichotomy.” Pippert said that colleges should be thinking about diversity in much more expansive ways.

Pippert said that overrepresenting minorities in college marketing materials could also hurt students who choose to attend institutions expecting greater diversity than actually exists. He cited a former student who told him they had transferred to Augsburg after being disappointed to learn that another college was far less diverse than marketing materials had led them to believe it was.

Karly S. Ford, an associate professor in the education-policy-studies department at Penn State, who has studied the representation of minority students in higher education, found in a study published in 2018 with Ashley N. Patterson that colleges omit, aggregate, and add racial categories and that institutions with the lowest rates of diversity were most likely to use more than one of these tactics. In their analysis of 128 institutions’ websites, they found that 40 percent of institutions omitted a category for white students in descriptions of the race and ethnicity of the student body, and the same proportion combined different categories of minority students — practices that may enhance the appearance of diversity, according to the authors. They also found that 81 percent of colleges added international students to tables designed to report U.S. race or ethnicity.

In a study published in 2021, Ford, along with Megan M. Holland, a co-author, analyzed admissions websites at 278 U.S. colleges and found that more-selective institutions were more likely to “actively display” their diversity and emphasize minority-student populations than were less-selective ones. The authors also found that less-selective colleges — while more diverse, on average — were less likely to promote the ethnic or racial diversity of their campuses or omit white students or add international students in representations of diversity.

Research has shown, Ford said, that both white and minority students value being in environments with people from different backgrounds and with different experiences. Still, Ford said, “I was surprised at the variety of ways that people were willing to kind of be fuzzy about race categories to enhance the appearance of diversity.”

The Disconnect

At Cal Poly, a spokesperson for the university said, “Representing our student body in university publications is a delicate balance. We want to reflect Cal Poly as it is, but it is also important to celebrate the diversity present within our community, ensure that every student sees themselves in university publications, and show what we aspire to be — a more diverse campus that better reflects the state that we serve.”

Cal Poly’s minority enrollment has increased over the past 10 years. The university has offered additional financial aid and programs, and has built relationships with partner high schools to attract diverse applicants.

But the percentage of Black students at Cal Poly has remained nearly constant.

The campus has seen multiple racist incidents over the past several years. Last October, two females who appeared drunk kicked in window screens in university housing and yelled a racist slur. About a year ago, a student found an anonymous note in their university apartment with a racial slur. A 2018 incident in which a student appeared in blackface at a fraternity party drew international attention.

Rashad, who now works as an intern at The Seattle Times, said one of the Black students he interviewed said that Black students at Cal Poly “all have a story about not feeling like they belong here.”

Ford said that if Black students at Cal Poly had felt welcomed and supported, the banners may not have been an issue.

“It’s not the representations alone,” Ford said. “It’s that the experience on campus is so different from the public representation. That disconnect is what I think is the larger issue.” —Adrienne Lu

Audrey Williams June contributed to this report.

Read Up

    • The University of Iowa athletics program must turn over all materials that former players have requested in an independent, external review of the college’s football program. This includes reports about specific coaches, according to a judge’s order in a federal discrimination lawsuit that former football players filed against the university and head football coach, among others. (The Gazette)
    • People with difficult-to-pronounce names have lower odds of getting an academic job or getting a tenure-track position in economics, according to a new working paper. And on that note, to improve your pronunciation when student names are unfamiliar, read this. And this. And this. (Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle)
    • Here are five stories of professors of color who started their careers eager and optimistic. Then, they had enough. (The Chronicle)

    —Fernanda