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On the Margins, Between the Lines: Reevaluating undergraduate diversity

Stanford’s viewbook states that “we believe that a student body that is both highly qualified and diverse in terms of culture, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, background, work and life experiences, skills and interests is essential to the educational process.” Stanford’s undergraduate student body is amazingly diverse, showing that this statement is more than just words on a website, and this diversity is enriching to the education of Stanford students in both formal and informal ways.

However, I want to question the way our school defines diversity and if we truly are as inclusive of all kinds of diversity with regards to admissions as we say we are. Although I think our Office of Undergraduate Admission does a wonderful job in admitting a wide range of students, there are areas that should be examined to see if they could be improved.

There are three statistics about diversity that our Admissions Office published on the website: race, financial aid and first generation college status. These clearly do not encompass all of the factors that an admissions officer uses to make decisions, but through publicly declaring our diversity solely through these few categories we may be doing ourselves a disservice and limiting our definition of diversity. Race becomes the dominant measurement and way to evaluate Stanford’s diversity, shortchanging those that bring other experiences to our school. Many elite schools have low representation of those whose families are involved with the military, are farmers, conservatives, students with children and students older than 25. Additionally, a Princeton study shows that in elite college admissions, white students from poor backgrounds have a disproportionately harder time getting accepted than whites with more money or students of color with similar socioeconomic status levels, meaning that college admissions place a greater emphasis on racial diversity than class, disadvantaging certain students who don’t increase statistical diversity.

These published statistics use standard racial categories, which can obfuscate important distinctions that enrich our student body. For example, in this classification system, Middle Eastern students are considered white, even though they are a group that experiences strong discrimination in the United States. Given current events, it is more important than ever to have well-educated Americans with Middle Eastern cultural knowledge and for students to have Middle Eastern classmates so their cultural understandings are not just based on negative media portrayals. Although we do seem to have a healthy population of students of Middle Eastern decent, it is important that distinctions like this do not get ignored because they are not visible in the statistics we publish.

Last but not least, these statistics can be unintentionally misleading, making a school appear to serve populations it does not. A recent article on the website for Applause Africa highlighted the fact that, among Ivy League schools, the racial category of “Black” or “African-American” is still being used as a subtle way to exclude those who come from a legacy of slavery in this country. Almost half of the black student populations are recent African immigrants, even though first- and second-generation Africans immigrants make up less than 1 percent of America’s population. This group is disproportionately wealthy and equally likely to attend and graduate from college as Americans of other races with similar socioeconomic status profiles. The fact that they are categorized in the same way as historically African-American groups allows the universities to appear to be serving those that have been historically excluded from higher education better than they are. Recent African immigrants are not less valuable than historically African-American people in adding to a school’s diversity, but lumping the two categories together makes admissions statistics easy to misread and covers up the fact that historically African-American high school students are still not being admitted to top universities in a representative way. The students for whom a system of increasing diversity was designed to help are being shut out in favor of more privileged students.

So, although I love both the diversity at our school and that this is something that Stanford values highly, I still wonder if we are truly admitting a student body that is “diverse in terms of culture, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, background, work and life experiences, skills and interests.” I suspect that our allegiance to racial statistics creates a system of buckets that diminishes important distinctions within categories. Although racial diversity is key, touting only that statistic publicly to demonstrate our diversity shortchanges the other areas that we purportedly value, which in turn deprives our students of valuable learning experiences while in college.

Jamie would love to hear your thoughts on this issue, so email her at jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu.