- A study showing white students misrepresented their race on college applications went viral.
- But education experts say while some students do lie about their race, the study is misleading.
- Despite the survey’s flaws, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the role of race in admissions.
Several thought leaders, including academics and journalists, recently took to social media, linking a study about white students misrepresenting their race on US college applications.
National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi, best-known for his work on antiracism, was one of the many people who posted the study that seemed to suggest such students were lying about their backgrounds to augment their chances of gaining admission to schools and obtain additional financial aid benefits.
In a now-deleted tweet, Kendi included a few of the study’s most shocking statistics, writing, “More than a third of White students lied about their race on their college applications, and about half of these applicants lied about being Native American.”
But education experts say while there may be a significant portion of students who misrepresent their race on applicants, the study is misleading and the data it’s based on is too narrow to elicit widespread conclusions.
The survey, conducted by the education website Intelligent, hinges on the responses of just 1,250 white Americans ages 16 and older who “previously applied to a college or university in the US.”
-Rebecca Nagle (@rebeccanagle) October 28, 2021
Of those respondents, approximately a third said they had lied about being a racial or ethnic minority. Nearly 75% of the respondents who misrepresented their race or ethnicity reported gaining acceptances to schools, despite lying on their applications.
Given that this survey was released against the backdrop of decades-long debates over affirmative action and a number of scandals whereby several prominent white academics have been exposed for posing as people of color, it naturally drew ire online.
“Holy s—! It’s worse than anyone thought,” wrote activist and writer Rebecca Nagle in a now-deleted tweet.
Experts, however, caution against viewing the survey’s limited results as representative of a wider phenomenon.
They say doing so not only obscures the challenges students of color face when applying to college, but contributes to the inaccurate idea that white privilege in college admissions doesn’t exist.
How the methodology “undercuts its usefulness”
“The survey’s methodology severely undercuts its usefulness and the extent to which any broad conclusions should be drawn from it,” Nadirah Farah Foley, a postdoctoral associate at New York University, wrote in an email to Insider. “Frankly, given the methodological concerns, I don’t think the survey offers much useful information.”
We see many groups of non-white applicants continuing to be underrepresented in applicant poolsNadirah Farah Foley
Foley, whose research explores how racism and social class affect students’ experiences, cited other reporting on the survey, which over-generalized the results and conflated the number of survey respondents with the whole college student population.
A representative from Intelligent provided Insider with the survey questions, which included, “Why did you falsely claim minority status?”
More than 80% of respondents said they did so to improve their chances of being accepted, per the survey.
The survey suggests white respondents are most likely to falsely claim of Native American identity
Of the survey respondents who falsely claimed to identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, nearly 50% lied about being Natively American, compared to the approximately 13% who lied about being Latino and 10% who lied about being Black.
“That applicants might be more likely to falsely claim Native or Indigenous heritage is a distressing finding, if not a surprising one,” Foley wrote. “That said, experts have pointed out that this survey likely overstates the extent of this phenomenon.”
She added that if 34% of all white students were falsely claiming Native American identity on their college applications, as the study suggests, “we’d expect to see higher numbers of non-white applicants.”
Instead, Native Americans are underrepresented in college admissions and on college campuses.
According to the Postsecondary Policy Institute (PNPI), an organization that seeks to make education policy more equitable, less than 20% of 18-24 year old Native American students are enrolled in college – compared to 41% of the overall US population.
The organization also states that Native American college enrollment has decreased by thousands of students from 2016-2019, the most recent year for which data are available.
“We see many groups of non-white applicants continuing to be underrepresented in applicant pools,” Foley wrote. “That’s not to say applicants lying about their race doesn’t happen or doesn’t matter – it does.”
The survey has sparked conversations about college access and the role of race in admissions
While representatives from Intelligent did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment on the backlash the survey received, Beata Williams, an Intelligent contributor, said the results speak to the competitive nature of college admissions.
“Applicants who understand that their chances are limited based on academic performance when compared against their ethnic peer group, might be inclined to employ tactics that are not ethical to improve their chances for admission,” Williams told Insider in an email.
Several other experts pointed out that while respondents may have attributed their acceptance to these schools to lying about their race, this is likely not the case, as the Supreme Court ruled that race cannot be the sole factor considered in admissions.
“In a selective and holistic admission office, and particularly those that are race-aware or race-conscious in their decision-making, race does not stand alone as a criteria,” Jerry Lucido, the executive director of the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, told Insider.
“Any mechanistic use of race was prohibited by Supreme Court case law long ago,” he added.
Despite its flaws, the survey offers an opportunity to reflect on race in admissions
Many of the people who originally posted reporting on the survey, including Kendi and Nagle, removed their tweets upon realizing the study’s flaws.
Nagle apologized for sharing the survey, tweeting, “I trusted the publication, but should have looked into the methodology behind the survey, which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”
Kendi, who received an onslaught of comments saying the study shows white privilege doesn’t exist and that the study undermined “his life’s work,” posted a thread on Tuesday, debunking his critics.
“I deleted this tweet when I saw disinformation operatives distorting its implications,” Kendi wrote. “I posted these figures to show how many people may still hold this false belief that White people are disadvantaged.”
-Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) November 1, 2021
Despite the survey’s flaws, education experts say the research offers an opportunity to reflect on college access and the role of race in admissions.
“So many students of color face incredible challenges to accessing higher education, and it’s very sad that anyone would seek to lie in order to gain leverage in the admissions process, although it probably happens sometimes,” Julie Park, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park School of Education, wrote in an email.
“Even if the survey results are not nationally representative, they point to the need for holistic admissions — which looks at the entire student’s application fully,” she added. “So students are not admitted (or rejected) on any single criteria like race, test scores, or demographic categories.”Tags: college