What Roles Do “Diversity” and “Race” Play in College Admissions?

It’s important to note that colleges frame their efforts to create a more varied student body as “diversity” initiatives as opposed to “race” initiatives. This is because the term “diversity” is a much looser term, with “race” being just one aspect of it.

In recent years there has been much debate in both the college and high school arenas regarding diversity and race in admissions. Lots of these debates stem from the underrepresentation of minority groups and the effects of socioeconomic differences between races.

If you walk through the majority of college campuses in the United States, the population looks oddly homogeneous – colleges are actively looking to change that through diversity initiatives.

It’s important to note that colleges frame their efforts to create a more varied student body as “diversity” initiatives as opposed to “race” initiatives. This is because the term “diversity” is a much looser term, with “race” being just one aspect of it.

The term “race” refers to a student’s ethnic background. Typical breakdowns are: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and Other. The term “diversity” encompasses things like socioeconomic factors, extracurricular activities, and achievements.

Race is a very prickly issue to begin with, and with college being a means of upward mobility, it becomes even more controversial. For example, there has been much controversy surrounding Asian and Asian American students who are grossly underrepresented relative to their academic performance.

One of the most cited pieces of research comes from Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade, who found that Asians have the lowest acceptance rate by test score bucket, and that there is a large SAT point “penalty” for being Asian. On the other hand, there is a sizeable “bump” for being Black or Hispanic.

On the high school level, the case of Stuyvesant in New York comes to mind. Admission to the school is based purely on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), and it so happens that more than 70% of the students there are Asian, whereas other groups are underrepresented.

The test itself has come under legal fire from the NAACP, which claim that basing admissions to these schools on the SHSAT results in the schools being among the most racially segregated in the country.

By using the term “diversity” instead of “race,” colleges are able to use non-academic reasons for turning down a student who is otherwise academically qualified. From the college’s perspective, they want a student body that encompasses a wide range of interests, demographics, and extracurriculars.

At a top-tier college, the applicant pool consists of students who have academically outperformed their peers on the local, regional, and even national levels. Given such a high level of academic achievement to select from, the question for the college now becomes: “How to create student population that is as diverse as possible?”

This is where differentiators like extracurriculars and teacher recommendations come in, but even these may not be enough to make an applicant suitable for the “diversity” of the student body.

As uncomfortable as it is to think about, many people have stereotypes when they think of a “typical” student of a given ethnic background. The stereotype is grounded in some kernel of reality, and if a student’s profile fits the stereotype, the college will probably look at that student as not adding to the “diversity” of its student body.

For example, take an Asian-American applicant who aced the SAT, is at the top of his/her class, and plays piano and violin. Another example may be a white applicant from the Midwest who is captain of the state champion football team and has done well in school. It seems as though both these applicants have the academic and extracurricular resume to get into top-ranked schools, but from the school’s perspective there is a large number of applicants with similar profiles, and extending offers to them would not bring anything new or “diverse” to the student body.

The difference between “diversity” and “race” is a complicated one that touches on many sensitive topics, and it is important to understand the arguments from both sides. Knowing that colleges focus on the diversity of their student body, understanding their thought process may be helpful in crafting your college application, and even in selecting which schools you apply to.

Since 2006, Stratus Prep’s team of expert College Admissions Counselors have helped aspiring candidates gain admission to their dream schools.

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