US universities ‘using data tricks to hide lack of diversity’

Top US universities with low numbers of ethnic minority students are most likely to use questionable practices that overplay diversity, study claims

September 28, 2018
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Source: Reuters
Not what they seem: researchers found that US universities and liberal arts colleges use data collection practices that they believe ‘present a more positive picture of the ethno-racial diversity on campus’ than the raw figures suggest

Leading US universities are concealing their low numbers of ethnic minority students by using reporting techniques that artificially enhance the appearance of diversity on campus, a study has claimed.

By analysing the websites of 156 leading US universities and liberal arts colleges, researchers at Pennsylvania State University identified the widespread use of data collection practices that they believe “present a more positive picture of the ethno-racial diversity on campus” than the raw figures suggest.

Institutions with low levels of diversity in their student cohort are much more likely to employ these techniques, says the paper by Karly Sarita Ford and Ashley Patterson, published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

Among the techniques examined are the “aggregation” of ethnic minority students into one single racial subgroup when presenting racial diversity figures, creating a “single large number” which “obfuscates readers’ understanding of which racial groups are on campus” and “may enhance the appearance of diversity”, the study says.

“Universities that present their under-represented minorities as a single statistic may be masking the dearth of student members in subgroups that comprise the larger total,” the study explains.

Presenting students “through the lens of a ‘white/non-white’ binary” is also part of a “racial project” in which “white is normal and neutral and anything non-white is other”, it adds.

Research-intensive institutions where student diversity is low are 50 per cent more likely to use this practice, and 45 per cent are doing so, compared with 30 per cent of institutions where diversity is high, the study reports.

The study also highlights the “omission” of a white student category at many institutions – a practice that “sends a subtle message about which students are ‘raced’ and which are not” and “clouded rather than clarified” understanding about diversity on campus.

Institutions with low levels of ethnic diversity, including several Ivy League universities and large public universities, are three times more likely to omit white students as a category compared with providers where diversity was high, the study says.

Another questionable practice was the inclusion of international students as a separate subgroup in racial profile tables, which “quietly complicates” any assessment of diversity because, as in the case of white South Africans, they are not necessarily from an ethnic minority.

“The addition of international students to representations of US ethno-racial student diversity [is] an effort to enhance the appearance of diversity on campus without addressing the persistent under-representation of domestic minoritised groups,” argued the report’s authors, who have urged universities to give more granular data on student groups.

“In a landscape where diversity is both desirable and elusive, this work underscores the lengths to which universities will go to represent ethno-racial categories in ways that enhance the appearance of diversity on campus,” Dr Ford and Dr Patterson concluded.

“We characterise this as a cosmetic response rather than one which addresses the larger problem: the persistent under-representation of students of colour at four-year institutions.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Interesting article. One could also say white is an aggregate grouping as well. Should sub-groups such as Irish, Italian, Ukrainian, Albanian be used as well. What does white mean as even the white nationalists have trouble with the term. E.g. are Jewish people white?. Maybe need more diverse reporting e.g. rich versus poor, by nationality, by colour, by religion etc. may give a fuller picture if real diversity or not. Might also make for some interesting venn diagrams as for example maybe all jewish people are not white and rich. Food for thought.
Interesting read. Data itself always tend to lean toward the position or stance of the interpreter. Global ranking bodies like the THE should set the parameters (expected grouping categories) for classification of diversity among universities.

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