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Why Diversity Matters in College Admission

College counselor and Quetzal Mama Roxanne Ocampo debunks some myths while sharing the importance of diversity and cultural authenticity in the college admission process.

However you and your children self-identify in terms of race or ethnicity, you may wonder how diversity might factor into college admission these days. Well, college counselor and the Quetzal Mama herself, Roxanne Ocampo, is here to debunk some myths while sharing the importance of diversity and cultural authenticity in the college admission process.

As a college admission coach for Latino students, I am constantly amazed by the many incorrect assumptions regarding diversity in the college admission process. For example, when I cite examples of my student success stories—including admission to selective universities or a national scholarship award, a typical response is, “They were chosen because they are Hispanic, right?” Or, “I assume they were admitted through Affirmative Action?” Or, more close to home—when my daughter was accepted to Harvard last year, many persons believed her admission decision was based on her race/ethnicity, and not because of her academic merit.

As a proud Quetzal Mama, I was initially protective and wanted to defend my students against these incorrect assumptions. Instead, I decided to sit down and create a list of facts and myths. I believe in order to have an open and constructive dialogue about diversity in college admission, we need to separate the facts versus the myths.

Myth or fact?

Myth or fact? When considering diverse student applicants, do selective colleges unilaterally bypass more qualified candidates for “minority” candidates? This is a myth.

The fact is that selective universities have a historically high academic benchmark. This benchmark includes factors such as a GPA, class rank, SAT/ACT test scores, and unique accomplishments such as discipline-specific awards and distinction. Let’s be on the same page and agree that the diverse candidates competing at this level have already reached this academic benchmark. These students are on equal par, and often times more competitive than their peers. The fact these students belong to an underrepresented ethnic group simply adds further dimension to their profile. So, all things being equal, this distinction may move this candidate out of the “being considered” pile and into the “accepted” pile.

Myth or fact? Are the terms “diversity,” “minority,” “person of color,” and “underrepresented” candidates essentially the same in college admission? This is a myth.

The term, “diversity” is extremely broad and can refer to many things. A diverse candidate can be any student (including white students) who brings diversity to a college campus. A student’s “diversity” may include anything from age, sexual orientation, race & ethnicity, and gender to socioeconomic status and geographic background. This broad term has many implications, however. For this reason, many people incorrectly assume “diversity” refers to non-white students. Colleges perceive “diversity” according to their unique student body and other factors that shape their campus. Therefore, different colleges may have a different perspective and define “diversity” according to their needs.

A “minority” candidate is any student who does not belong to the dominant group (typically Caucasian). For example, Asian students are not classified as Caucasian, so they can be categorized as both “diverse” and as a “minority” candidate. The sociological definition of “minority” focuses on whether or not a person is a member of the established power structure and is not based on numerical representation. For example, during Apartheid, black Africans were numerically the majority—yet they held no power. Therefore, they were considered “minorities.”

A “person of color” is any student who is not white. It does not refer to their minority status, socioeconomic status, or whether they are underrepresented in any particular discipline. For example, East Indian students are considered “persons of color” yet may not be from a lower socioeconomic class or underrepresented in academic disciplines.

A “historically underrepresented” student refers to any student who belongs to a group that has been historically underrepresented in various contexts. In the college admission context, we are generally speaking about Latino, African American, and Native American students. Some institutions may have a broader definition of “historically underrepresented” students that may include socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, physical disability, etc. For example, most Asian students are not considered “underrepresented” within the college admission context. This is because in many disciplines Asian students are represented at a higher percentage than their percentage of the population. This is not true for every academic discipline, but it tends to be the case within the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. That being said, one should be cautious of generalities, as certain Asian subsets, such as Hmong and Cambodians, are still underrepresented in higher education.

So, in summary, a “diverse” student can add diversity to a college campus in a number of ways, not necessarily tied to ethnicity or race. A “minority” student does not necessarily refer to numerical underrepresentation, and traditionally refers to a person who is not a member of the established power structure.  A “person of color” refers to any student who is not white, and does not take into account socioeconomic status or numerical representation in academia. An “underrepresented” student refers to a student who belongs to a group that has been historically underrepresented in higher education. This group includes Latino, African-American, Native-American, and a subset of Asian students.

Myth or fact? Are selective colleges merely interested in increasing their “minority” enrollment through an aggregate number of matriculants? In other words, are selective colleges admitting “minority” students so they can pad their “diversity” statistics? This is part fact and part myth!

Yes, colleges do wish to accomplish their goal of admitting a more diverse class of entering freshmen. However, they are aiming for both diversity statistics and culturally authentic student representation. Colleges believe that culturally authentic students add to the academic experience of all students.

For more of Roxanne's insights regarding cultural authenticity, check out her guest post in our Parents' blog!

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