Race and College Admissions

I received an interesting question today from a friend and colleague who does tutoring and test prep for the ACT and the SAT. Here’s what she wrote:

Hi, Mark. I have a quick question. I have a student who is interested in applying to Stanford. She asked whether she would be able to classify herself as “Hispanic” given that her dad’s family is from Spain. I am not sure what the definition of “Hispanic” is. She did tell me that she’s always marked Hispanic before, but wanted to make sure that this would be proper for her college applications.

Race is such a sticky issue. On the one hand, kids have an incentive to declare themselves members of “minority” groups, simply because colleges have an incentive to admit larger numbers of minorities to demonstrate their “commitment to diversity.”

So since the admissions game tends to give those of different racial or cultural backgrounds an edge, isn’t it best to play the game by ticking off that “Hispanic” category? Since there is no single definition of what it means to be Hispanic, then by all means, the student should identify herself as Hispanic.

On the other hand, this student is asking the question precisely because she understands that to claim to be a “minority” is, in a sense, to claim that she is somehow underprivileged. Or that she is a victim of discrimination. She knows, in her heart of hearts, that her Spanish surname is the only thing she has in common with a girl with a similar last name who grew up in Queens of a single mother who cleans hotel rooms for a living.

Personally, I loathe these racial categorizations. They seem to contravene everything that Martin Luther King stood for:  a world in which kids are judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Race is not a biological fact: it is a social construct. “Race” is whatever we say it is. “Race” is whatever society says it is.

(I had a professor in graduate school who told us he was “pink.” Indeed, his skin was very pink. A veteran of the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s administration, he grew tired of America’s obsession with skin color–and surnames).

This student’s question is an indicator of how complicated race has become in our country today, in which both Tiger Woods and Barack Obama and others have begun to modulate the way we talk and think about race.

Confronted with the shifting definitions of racial categories, this young student is troubled by her claim of “Hispanic” heritage. She understands the game that privileges those with Spanish surnames in this country. Yet she does not want to leave the wrong impression that she is disadvantaged.

My advice to this young woman was to go with her conscience. To my mind, there is no clear moral or ethical line here. She can either claim “Hispanic” on her application or not. But she must be comfortable with her decision. A good admissions officer at Stanford will be able to read between the lines. The Spanish surname or the checked “Hispanic” box will not likely sway an admissions decision at such a competitive school where 11.3% of the students identify themselves as Hispanic.

(Unlike many colleges, Stanford already does a great job of enrolling minorities. In addition to its Hispanics, Stanford’s undergraduate student body is 24% Asian, 10% black, 2.4% American Indian, 6% “international” of undetermined “race”, 41% white, and 5.3% unreported).

I have no qualms, morally speaking, about this student claiming Hispanic heritage. It won’t make much difference in her particular case.

But part of me yearns for the day when this question is no longer asked.

Mark Montgomery
College Admissions Consultant
Former Member, Interracial Concerns Committee, Dartmouth College

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Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  1. Hello, Mark.

    I share your feelings. Would that it wasn’t necessary for such questions to be asked. I’m sure that this is true today in some circumstances; but the country still suffers inequity — it is after all still very recently that America had laws supporting racial discrimination. These things take time to be leveled out.

    You and your readers might be interested in Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl’s study on Improving Fluid Intelligence by Training Working Memory (PNAS April 2008) which recorded increases in mental agility (fluid intelligence) of more than 40% after 19 days of focused training with a progressive dual n-back training method. It seems to be the kind of affordable tool that can help level the playing field by substituting for more expensive test prep.


  2. Hello, Martin.
    Thanks so much for your response and for visiting my site.
    I agree that historical inequities take time to sort out, and I’m more than willing to be patient.
    And, as I say, I have not qualms about the student in this example claiming to be Hispanic, even though her claim violates the spirit of the question
    I have a friend who once asked me, rhetorically, about when to end psychotherapy. How do we know when we’re “cured”?
    I think the same question will have to be asked–in the not too distant future–about racial categorizations in this country. When will we know when we’ve moved beyond them, as a society? For how long into the future may we expect to see questions about our race on various applications and forms?
    When will we know when King’s dream will have been achieved?
    Again, thank you for asking provocative questions and raising important points.

  3. Dear Mark,

    While I applaud your desire to rid the world of racial “boxes,” I am surprised by your generalization that only Hispanics with single parents, who work in the service industry, have a right to check off the Hispanic box on college applications.

    My husband, by definition, is Hispanic, makes a very good salary and is well respected in his industry. Should my children deny their culture and not check off the appropriate box on their college applications because their father is a successful Hispanic?

  4. Dear Erica,

    I didn’t mean to imply that you–or anyone else–does not have a right to check off boxes that identify you with one ethnic group or another. Checking a box that indicates a fact is neither a celebration or a denial of that fact. It just is.

    If you or your daughter want to self-identify your Hispanic heritage on a form, that’s fine. But in my view, your daughter should reap no particular advantage based on that culture. We can all celebrate our diversity without conferring any special advantages (or disadvantages).

    In my view, the financial aid advantage should go to those who are unable to afford a college education–for whom economic opportunities are harder to come by. Clearly one can have successful (i.e. wealthy) parents and be brown, orange, pink, or blue, or speak Urdu or Tagalog or Athabaskan. And one can clearly be dirt poor and white.

    Just as I believe we should be judged not by the color of our skin–or our culture or ethnic heritage–no one skin tone or culture or heritage should be given preference in the admissions or financial aid process. The real litmus, in my view, should be one’s individual merit and a family’s ability to pay.

    I know that the admissions and financial aid systems, despite our ideals, do not really work that way. Most colleges do take ethnicity into account in the admissions process–despite whatever the Supreme Court might say about the practice. So I do not begrudge anyone who takes advantage of whatever opportunities are offered by our flawed system by checking a box.

    But it’s hard for me to believe in Dr. King’s ideals and turn a blind eye when those ideals are not upheld.

    And on a personal note, I have to say that I hate checking that “white/Caucasian” box. Is there a white culture, really? The only people I know who assert the existence of a “white culture” are members of Aryan Nation or some other supremacist group. Where is the box for “Italian” or “Welsh” or “Ukrainian”? I do not identify myself as “white”. I find no box to check that reflects my “culture,” and no application form that “celebrates” my heritage, background, or upbringing. So I no longer answer the question.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and engaging in the discussion. This is a very tough issue, and one that we as a society do not usually talk about in a respectful, dispassionate, and thoughtful way. Thanks for your very thoughtful comments.

  5. “And on a personal note, I have to say that I hate checking that “white/Caucasian” box. Is there a white culture, really?”

    Is there a Hispanic culture, or a black culture, really? I assure you that a Brazilian is just as different from an Argentinian as a Spaniard is from a Russian. Likewise for a Moroccan and a Namibian. And I can tell you from personal experience that Japanese and Filipinos are worlds apart as well.

    These “check-boxes” are just a ham-fisted effort to make the student body look a certain way. They do little to advance the cause of those who really need help – children from poor and poorly educated backgrounds.

  6. Thanks for visiting the blog, Jay, and for reminding us that skin color is not a not synonymous with “culture.” It’s very complex, isn’t it?

  7. Dear Mark,

    You may find this story interesting.
    After hearing so many stories about how white students who have better scores, grades, community service, sport participation, etc… are being excluded from fine institutions over “minority” classmates, I decided to do a little personal research.

    There has been a long-standing rumor in my husband’s family of Cherokee Nation heritage, so I asked my mother-in-law about it specifically to nail down the heritage of our two children who are rapidly approaching college age. I admit that I would rather not check the “White Box” because I am afraid my children will lose opportunities if I do. She sent me some kind of Cherokee Nation certificate on a distant relative and suggested that rather than digging up all those old birth certificates, I get a DNA cheek-swab test, so that’s exactly what I did!

    The results were rather astonishing (and very pleasing to me) that my two British-Islander children have strong DNA markers from TUNISIA and MOROCCO! This means that though they appear to be white, they are in fact African American in their DNA. The test also marked them as Alaska Native, German, and French. I have all the documents to prove this and the test is backed by one of this country’s most respected DNA labs.

    I will probably end up checking almost all the boxes!

  8. Dear Natalie,

    I have heard of this DNA service, and I listened to a radio story in which an African-American man had his DNA examined, and it turned out he had very little African DNA at all. So this information created something of an identifty crisis for him: was he really African-American? Or not? What does the term “African-American” mean?

    The fact is that race is a social construct, not a genetic one. It is a very complicated factor in modern life. The Supreme Court will continue to wrestle with it, just as the electorate will wrestle with it now and in the future. Perhaps if we were all tested, we’d learn how goofy this whole racial construct really is, and we’d begin to abandon it completely.

    That said, why are you afraid to check “white”? I don’t agree that your children will “lose opportunities.” In fact, if they game the system, claiming to be African, wouldn’t that be something of a fib, or at least an admission that you are, yourself, falling into the race trap. Why is it “pleasing” that your kids have North African DNA? Does it impel you to teach your kids Arabic? Or does this new information, in your mind, entitle them to special treatment of some kind?

    I’d rather see your kids (because this is your kids’ application–they will be checking the boxes, not you) write an interesting story about race and identity, and explain their mixed genetic markers, and narrate how they feel about racial politics in America. That would be a sign of maturity and thoughtfulness. Checking all the boxes and brandishing “proof” would make them look silly, small, and could possibly be self-destructive. Why not encourage your kids to do what significant numbers of kids their age are now doing: refusing to disclose their race on their applications by simply not reporting? To me, that is more mature than “proving” that your kids are actually “minorities”.

    No, Natalie: don’t do it. Don’t fall in the race trap. Set an example for your kids that race really doesn’t mean anything. Use this new knowledge to talk to them about the meaninglessness of skin color: we are all humans and human history is actually darned short, and people have migrated all over the planet for millennia.

    The DNA test is remarkable and interesting and thought provoking. But personally, if I were your kid, I’d find it embarrassing to pretend I was black on an application form when clearly everyone can see that my skin is pink and I grew up in a European/Causasian/American/monolingual household in suburbia.

    Do you really want to teach your kids to game the system? Or to rise above it?

    Perhaps this is not the response you anticipated, but I do appreciate the conversation. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  9. Dear Mark,

    I am so very appreciative of your response and agree with you on every count!

    I certainly don’t want to fall into a race trap and the reason I was “pleased” with the outcome of my child’s DNA test was because I believe that race classifications for preferential treatment are ridiculous. I want to start a new discussion on what race REALLY is and whether or not it is important at all. I am very pleased to prove that we are all part of a big melting pot and because of that, see no reason that anyone should get preferential treatment based on race.

    “Gaming the system” is not my thing. My husband is on the admissions committee for one of the UC Medical Schools and he sees people do this all the time. After hearing all the stories about how the admissions committee members see this stuff a mile away, I would not try to fool anyone, nor would I want to.

    Ultimately, the point I am trying to make is purely in the hope that on any application, selection is based upon an individual’s merits and not because of race, gender, religious or sexual preferences. The only way positive changes can be made in this direction is for us to open fair discussions (such as this one) on the matter. I feel that my investment in a DNA test was a great way to get some FACTS on the table, especially since discussions on racial issues tend to get very emotional.

    I will take your advice and advise my kids (because I will not be filling the aps out for them, but will be helping out as most parents do) to opt out of racial box checking. This is at the very least a small step in the right direction.

    Again, thank you for your thoughtful response and your time!

  10. Question: My father considers himself Columbian. He is a Holocaust survivor born in Romania, who was “in arms” when he was given entrance into Cali, South American. He was raised, educated and continued through medical school there. He later became an American citizen after marrying the American sister of his medical school classmate. I have applied and been accepted to college but my good friend and I are in disagreement on my status. Am I 1/2 Hispanic? My good friend says I am not and my parents say I am. Who is right? JS

  11. Hello, Jordan.

    This is a complicated question. Your “status” is that you are an American citizen of Romanian/American descent, whose father happened to live a good portion of his life in Colombia. “Hispanic” is not a gift of geography, it is one of language and culture. your last name is not “hispanic” in the least.

    My question is this: why does it matter?

  12. My son plays tennis, and it is quite an expensvie sport! He does well, but we can’t afford to send him to all of the fancy private coaches and camps like his friends, even though my husband & I have good jobs. Still, our son is very talented. There are grants and scholarships for minority pplayers, but none based on merit alone. My husband is one half Spanish, as his mother and grandparents came from spain – we are considering applying for a grant based on my husband’s hispanic heritage, but are a little uncomfortable about it bc our name is not spanish-sounding. We also do not really culturally identify ourselves as “hispanic” – BUT if this funding is available for other players and our son qualifies, technically, is it proper to apply for the funding?

  13. Hello, Julia.

    Thanks for the message. I’m not sure how to help you, other than to sing Jiminy Cricket’s famous little ditty: “Always let your conscience be your guide.”

    In addition, let me restate I often ask parents who are shelling out thousands of dollars for their kids to play sports at the elite level. “Why?”

    Some parents do it out of the hope that their kid will win scholarships. However, if you are spending $7000 or more a year for the sport (as many families do, including travel to national tournaments, extra uniforms, hotel rooms, etc.) and you do that for 5 or 6 years, we’re talking about a total investment of (say) $42,000. Full ride scholarships for tennis are available, but given that your son will have to attend whatever college gives him the money (IF they give him the money), is this a good investment? What if he gets only $5000 per year for four years? You’re now $22k in the hole.

    Some parents justify the expense by thinking that their kid will someday play in the US Open or Wimbledon. We just witnessed the Olympics, with all those “up close and personal” stories of parents who made enormous sacrifices so that their kids could pursue their dream. (I was amazed by the Japanese figure skater who renounced her citizenship and became Russian in order to win a gold–and then won nothing).

    So my question is this: “what’s the goal?” Why are you spending so much money on tennis? Sure, it’s fun and all, and your son sounds talented. But what is the investment? What’s the sport worth to you? To him?

    Figure out the answers to those questions first, and then think about what sacrifices (in terms of both money and self-respect) you are willing to make.

    I hope this is helpful, and thanks again for writing in.

  14. Hi! Thank you for this very informative blog. My daughter is 25% Spanish, we
    have a Spanish surname. I feel that in the very least she should be able to check the hispanic box when you consider the obstacles she has and will continue to encounter due to prejudice against hispanics-of any descent. I have personally encounter this prejudice and I am not hispanic.
    Thank you!

  15. Dear Kelle,
    Your daughter is welcome to check any box she feels fits her own identity. The politics of ethnicity are such that we are not race-blind in the admissions process. Perhaps we will get there some day (and I really hope we do). As Martin Luther King once dreamt, our children should be judged not by the color of their skin (or their last name or their first language or their country of origin), but by the content of their character.
    Thanks for visiting.

  16. Quick question: My mother is 100% Egyptian and I myself am pretty dark. Can I check the “african american” box when applying to grad schools?

  17. Michelle,
    This application question is one that I clearly dislike. However, the answer to your question is simple: identify yourself however you wish to be identified. From a technical viewpoint, your claim to be “African American” is true enough. Of course, the definition of who is (or is not) African-American is subject to great debate from both inside and outside that community. But colleges ask you to apply your own definition. So feel free to define yourself however you find both truthful and reflective of your own identity.

  18. Let me say that while all this government labeling of race and categorizing is a very flawed system, I’m glad they do have it. A few people posting here mention wanting to take advantage of the system to give them an added boost. this is dishonest in my opinion and very nearly deplorable.
    I’m approaching my time for college applications, and live in a very, very affluent town. yet I’m Hispanic and my family struggles every day with living paycheck to paycheck. without college assistance, my sister (a senior) and I would be unable to even entertain the notion of college education. even with help, we will be attempting miracles to do it, as an under 30k income just isn’t enough. and for people to want to take people similar to me and deprive them of chances to succeed for their own benefit? terrible.
    checking Hispanic gives a good idea of what a large part of the Hispanic population is like these days- struggling to live in a privileged society. many of us are first generation students, grasping at whatever chance we get to escape the route many of our counterparts take in engaging in crime or just merely “settling” for a difficult life making due with a job at walmart.
    just something to think about, the perspective of a stereotypical Hispanic as opposed to those white men in robes playing with our futures.

  19. Hello. I understand your struggles. However, you are falling into stereotypes yourself, painting “white men in robes playing with your future” as the underlying problem. Is the problem really white people? Or is the problem equality of opportunity?

    While I do know that racism exists in this country, I also know that opportunities do exist for students with low income. Ivy League schools, for example, are free to students whose families make less than about $60k per year. Most private universities will also offer free rides to capable students from low income families–regardless of race. Being Hispanic should not be the litmus: there are many rich families with Hispanic surnames. Should they get an advantage simply because their last name is Gutierrez or Peña? Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when kids would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Are you asking to be judged by the color of your skin? I believe strongly in providing students without financial wherewithal to attend college. For this reason I donate to my alma mater’s scholarship fund to ensure that poor people are able to attend. But I care not if that poor, deserving teen is white, black, brown, red, yellow, or purple. I care about that teen’s character. That the poor should have opportunity I wholeheartedly endorse. But granting advantages (or disadvantages) based on skin color or national origin or religion or sexual preference or anything other than character is frankly abhorrent to me. That said, I encourage you to seek out every opportunity available to you. Best of luck to you.

  20. Mark,

    I came upon your blog while researching some information on which box to check (or not check) on my law school application in regards to my ethnicity. I was researching if, by checking the hispanic box or the native american box, I would be given an advantage in the application process.

    My grandmother on my mother’s side is half-hispanic, but grew up in a Catholic Orphanage in Ohio with her 13 siblings. My grandfather on my father’s side is at least half Cherokee Indian (but he has passed and there is no information to find out how much, etc). My grandfather on my mother’s side is Scottish. He came from a very poor Scottish family that migrated to Canada just before he was born. I identify myself more with that part of my heritage than any other part. Not because of my red hair or my freckles, but because I know the most about my bloodline on that side of my family.

    After reading your blog, I an not going to check any boxes. I was inspired by your passion and realized after examining my motives how unethical it would be to claim to be anything I didn’t strongly identify with. In truth, I have decided that it is in fact, unethical to have those boxes at all. I feel like it would be more appropriate to have boxes that indicate what your parents’ jobs are, how many siblings you have, what the average income was within the household was growing up, etc. Even though I feel like even these questions are inappropriate, they would paint of clearer image of who is applying to the school. I feel like finding those students who have had obvious economic disadvantages, but have overcome those obstacles would make for a stronger student body, and in the long run, a better school.

    Thank you for your inspiration. Let’s hope Seattle University wants one more student who chooses not to identify herself with any ethnicity. Maybe if I get in, I’ll have a chance to take this new-found, inspired passion further in the legal realm.

    Kaitlyn Jackson

  21. Hi, Kaitlyn,

    It is you, not I, who is the inspiration here. You are the one having to check the box.

    If Seattle Pacific is silly enough not to accept you, let me know. I’ll write them a letter and point them to your post here.

    Thanks for writing in!

  22. Hello Mark,

    I am a high school student with a 3.7 gpa, and 1950 sat score. I am also an african american enrolled in AP courses and have debated for 3 years. what do you think my odds are of gettinng in to stanford ??

  23. Hi, Jay,
    I wish I had a crystal ball. I’d be soooo rich. And the colleges would hate me…!
    Of course, I do not know enough about you to gauge your individual chances of admission. But I can tell you that statistically speaking, your odds (based on grades and scores alone) are not great. You also do not tell me what you achieved in debate…just being a participant is not enough (Tiger Wood “participated” in golf in high school…and he got into to Stanford). You say you are in AP courses, but don’t list your scores on previous exams (all 5s?). Finally, while it is true that African Americans have slightly better odds of being accepted to Stanford than white kids, I just have to remind you that skin color is no more an “achievement” than being tall or having green eyes. Some schools have a deficit of African Americans, and thus may dip the bar a bit for African Americans. But Stanford? Hardly. True, blacks are slightly under-represented at Stanford, according to government statistics. So Stanford may take a bit of extra time with your application, in hopes of boosting their African American population to the point that it reflects their proportion of the US population. But they are not going to lower the admissions bar significantly just to achieve an affirmative action goal.
    So the question is–and will be–does Jay have the goods to be a Stanford student? I can’t really answer that very well, as I lack a lot of very important information about you. Of course, I wish you well, and hope you achieve your aim. But if you don’t, remind yourself that you don’t really want to be judged by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character. If you are not accepted, try to remind yourself that it is a good thing not to be given special advantages–or disadvantages–simply by the amount of melanin your skin possesses.
    Best of luck!

  24. Hello Mark,

    My parents are both Portuguese and I’ve heard conflicting views on wether or not we are considered hispanic. The DoT and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus includes people of Portuguese ancestry as hispanics but the Hispanic Scholarship Fund doesn’t.

    Can you help me out?

  25. Luc,
    The idea of ethnic preferences in admission is to give disadvantaged a leg up. Unfortunately in the US, we still do judge people by their genes when it comes to college admissions. Identity is a slippery concept, isn’t it?

    My advice is to walk the edge between your conscience and your self-interest. Since college applications ask for your identity, then you are free to express that identity any way you want. However, the spirit of the ethnic-based preference is to provide disadvantaged students an opportunity. You will have to wrestle with that moral dilemma yourself.

    I make no judgments. This process of university admission is such a mix of incentives and interests. As in every morally murky situation, you will have to make the decision that seems right in your own eyes.

    Best of luck,

  26. This article is offensive. I’m white and Hispanic. I check both boxes because that’s what I am. I don’t check the box because my socioeconomic status. My Hispanic culture does not imply that I come from a single mother who cleans rooms. I got into college because I get good grades.

    For my opinion, a Hispanic person has heritage that is some blend of Spanish/ white, Native American, and African. Modern Spanish people are not Hispanic unless they also have Hispanic heritage. Hispanics are from the Americas where we blended into this from the three races that blended.

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