Why doesn’t the Education Department collect racial data on college applicants?

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In many higher education circles, it’s a foregone conclusion the conservative-tilted U.S. Supreme Court will rule against race-conscious admissions next year, halting the practice for colleges nationwide.

Practically, this prohibition would affect a small slice of institutions, as most colleges accept a lion’s share of applicants. But experts do anticipate striking down race-conscious practices would weaken student body diversity on those campuses, and more broadly, college leaders are concerned about the message an adverse ruling would send to historically underrepresented applicants. 

To combat potential decay of campus diversity, colleges — but also policymakers, education advocates and higher ed associations — will need more information about admissions trends, one researcher argues. 

James Murphy, senior policy analyst at think tank Education Reform Now, in a new report calls for the U.S. Department of Education to take on this task. He argues the Education Department should ask more granular questions about applicants and admitted students, like their race and ethnicity, in an annual survey administered to colleges. 

Colleges already report this type of demographic data about enrolled students, but Murphy says diversity-minded institutions will want to know, for instance, whether in the admissions process they’re failing to attract applicants of color, or they are rejecting them in large numbers. 

“It’s not enough to look at enrollment to figure out the impact of admissions policies, especially after getting rid of race-conscious admissions,” Murphy said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

A survey that could be improved

Federally funded institutions every year send the Education Department extensive information on their enrollment, finances and staff, for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as IPEDS, a version of which was established as early as the mid-1980s.

This data gathering has long contributed to the department’s mission of trying to guarantee college access and has evolved over time to be more equity centric. During the Obama administration, the Education Department began inquiring about graduation rates of students who received federal Pell Grants, a key form of financial aid for low- and moderate-income students and families. 

The idea was that colleges could be held more accountable if a greater swath of the public, including lawmakers, observed colleges’ failings in supporting students with little means.

It was also a simple addition in IPEDS reporting, Murphy said. To him, it exemplifies how the Education Department could easily pose new questions about applicant demographics. 

He wants colleges to pony up disaggregated statistics on applicants and admitted students. Nowhere does such a national database exist. 

In any future admissions landscape where the Supreme Court has overturned race-conscious policies, many colleges will want to adjust their strategy for crafting a diverse student body, Murphy said. A college trying to add more Hispanic students may want to know if those prospective students are even applying, or if they’re being turned away, he said.

A decline in diversity is a likely result of the Supreme Court ruling, too. After California banned affirmative action in public education, employment and contracting in the mid-1990s, the share of Black, Native American and Hispanic students enrolling in the state’s four-year higher ed systems dropped.

A recent investigative report found not even 200 Black students enrolled in the California State University system’s most selective institution, California Polytechnic State University.

Murphy also wants the Education Department to more closely track colleges’ legacy policies, which give admissions preference to family members of alumni. And he wants it to collect data on early decision plans, which bind students to attend a particular institution before they can weigh competing offers but also ensure they’ll get an answer on whether they’re accepted sooner. 

Research has shown both approaches favor White, more affluent students. And among certain top-ranked institutions, these policies greatly improve an applicant’s prospects of being accepted. Harvard University applicants whose family members attended there were nearly six times more likely to secure admission than those without a parent who went to the Ivy League institution.

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