College application trends: What nuances are missed in using broad racial, ethnic categories?

Broad racial and ethnic categories used by colleges and universities to gauge and shape campus diversity often hide important variations within those groups, according to a two-part series of reports released this week from the Common App. In parts one and two of the report, the organization examines data from U.S. first-year applicants to its over 1,000 member colleges between 2013-14 and 2021-22 academic years to capture the changing composition of racial and ethnic categories—such as white, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, and Black or African American—over time, Higher Ed Dive reports.

As higher education officials strive for more diverse campus communities, it is important to remember that “race and ethnicity are incredibly complex constructs,” the reports say. Instead, a more specific, nuanced approach to reporting racial and ethnic categories provides more accurate and useful information about college enrollment trends.

Related: Common App updates language on gender questions, fee waiver eligibility >

What do broad categories conceal?

A closer look within broad racial/ethnic categories reveals more nuanced demographic trends, the reports say. For example, the 71% increase in the number of domestic Asian applicants between 2013–14 and 2021–22 hides the fact that this growth was not uniform across all Asian applicants. The number of applicants who indicated “Other South Asian” (e.g., Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh) as their detailed background increased by 169% during that timeframe. In contrast, the number of applicants who indicated “Japan” as their detailed background declined by 4%.

Broad categories also conceal the racial identities of Hispanic/Latinx and multiracial applicants. According to the report, almost half (49.8%) of applicants who identified themselves as Hispanic/Latinx in 2021 also identified as white. Yet, the fastest growing racial identities among Hispanic/Latinx applicants in the last decade include historically underrepresented backgrounds such as American Indian or Alaska Native (297% growth), Black or African American (233%), and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (160%). This trend mirrors diversification seen in other applicant pools.

Relying on broad racial and ethnic categories alone can lead college administrators to make decisions based on incorrect or incomplete information, says Brian Kim, a data scientist at Common App and an author of two reports summarizing the analysis. “We can imagine a lot of ways,” Kim explains, “in which, depending on the circumstances, and depending on the practices of an individual institution, these can have really percolating impactful differences.”

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