Black student activists may face admissions disadvantage, study finds

A new study in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity suggests that students involved in Black activism are given less attention and consideration by college admissions staff at predominantly white institutions. Ted Thornhill, assistant professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University, sent emails on behalf of fictitious Black students to over 500 white admissions counselors at historically and predominantly white colleges and universities. While the emails did not expressly state the race of the “students,” Thornhill used names that Black students are more likely to have. The messages also differed: some showed an interest in Black identity and activism, while others were considered to be “deracialized and racially apolitical.”

Thornhill found that white admissions counselors were 26 percent less likely to respond to the emails of Black students “whose interests and involvements focused on anti-racism and racial justice.” Moreover, counselors who identified as white males were 37 percent less likely to respond to Black students interested in racial justice. Racially apolitical inquiries sent from Black women, meanwhile, garnered a 74 percent response rate from white male admissions counselors, compared with a 37 percent response rate when those inquiries mentioned Black activism.

“My findings indicate a clear pattern whereby white admissions counselors are more likely to ignore Black high school students’ inquiry emails if they betray an acknowledgment of the continuing significance of white racism,” Thornhill wrote. “Although this does not necessarily mean that white admissions counselors will treat these students’ applications unfavorably should they decide to apply, my findings suggest that they may be treated unfairly if they evince a rejection of color-blind ideology.”

Commenting on the findings, David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told Inside Higher Ed that admissions professionals are “eager for this kind of self-reflection” as they work to ensure that even the earliest stages of the college admissions process support “cultural fluency, fairness, and equity.”

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