There is a new study out on "the increasing number of students falling into the 'race/ethnicity unknown' category of postsecondary demographic data. The study findings suggest that a sizeable portion of students in this category are white, in addition to multiracial students who may have selected white as one of their categories." The study reports that over the decade ending in 2001, the proportion of students identified as being of unknown race grew from 3.2 percent to 5.9 percent. Prior to this study, the authors report, it was thought by many that the rise in "none" reflected a rise in multiracial self-identification, such that old categories no longer applied.
The study finds otherwise. Instead, it finds that most of those who report no racial identity are actually white. Here's a stunning statistic: At one of the three colleges included in the study, the share of students classifying themselves as white rose to 70 percent after they were admitted, compared with 42 percent behforehand. The proportion of students of unkown race dropped to 4 percent from 32 percent. The report (page 11) speculates on the reluctance of some to elect a racial classification at the admissions stage: "It is possible that some increase in unknown students is due to an impression among white and AAPI [Asian-American/Pacific Islander]students that their race/ethnicity would work against them in the admissions process."
The report notes that these reporting biases pose serious problems for the bean-counters whose job it is keep track of these sorts of things. One proposal would be to essentially force students and institutions to elect racial classifications by taking away the "unnkown" category for institutions reporting. The report observes, "Requiring institutions to collapse groups of students into the 'unknown' category results in less accurate informaiton at the federal level. Perhaps more disconcerting, it reinforces this practice at the institutional level. As we hear an increasing call for institutional accountability for student learning outcomes, we should also demand to know precisely what groups of students are present in our learning environments."
Joe Malchow pointed me to the study, and he has some personal reflections of his own.