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Stats Watch

Study raises questions about accuracy of demographic studies

Knowing the unknown.
University Business, Feb 2006

A new report by the James Irvine Foundation raises questions about campus demographic figures. Each year, a growing number of students list their race or ethnicity as "unknown." Nationally that figure has risen from 3.2 percent enrolled in 1991 to 5.9 percent in 2001, a nearly 100 percent increase.

Researchers at the James Irvine Foundation Campus Diversity Initiative explored this trend in a study of three California campuses and revealed that, at least in the studied group, many of the "unknown" students were, in fact, white. One campus showed a 150 percent increase in white-only students after the "unknown" category was analyzed.

All U.S. colleges and universities are required to provide annual demographic data on enrolling students, classified by race/ethnicity. The Integrated Post-secondary Education Data System (IPEDS), compiled annually by the Department of Education, is used in part to help guide universities toward diversity goals. On enrollment, students are asked to classify themselves according to the following categories: Nonresident Alien; black, non-Hispanic; American Indian/Alaska Native; Asian/Pacific Islander; Hispanic; white, non-Hispanic; and race/ethnicity unknown. IPEDS data has shown a dramatic increase in the percentage selecting the "unknown" category.

California was chosen for study because in addition to the IPEDS data, schools there participate in the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), a first-year student survey. Although CIRP categories are somewhat different than IPEDS categories, on analysis the data shows a smaller increase in unknowns than does IPEDS. The study's authors note that one reason may be that CIRP data is gathered after matriculation. They write that although further research is needed, "it may be that students who perceive their race/ethnicity to be a 'strike against them' in the admissions process are more likely to specify racial/ethnic backgrounds once they have enrolled." The report is available at --Tim Goral

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