A product of prestige? “Race unknown” and competitive admissions in the United States

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Policy researchers have difficulty understanding stratification in enrollment in US higher education when race and ethnicity data are plagued by missing values. Students who decline to ethnoracially self-identify become part of a “race unknown” reporting category. In undergraduate enrollment, “race unknown” students are not randomly distributed and are highest among the most selective universities. In this “Policy Research Note,” we investigate these patterns at US law schools to understand if they are driven by selectivity. We find that the most competitive law schools, on average, report 8% of their students are race unknown, double the rate of other law schools. We argue that race unknown enrollment cannot be ignored when studying ethnoracial enrollments in higher education because it varies systematically by institutional type and may mask actual rates of ethnoracial diversity. We posit that the race unknown category is likely produced by a combination of individual and institutional processes. Individual applicants may resist disclosing their ethnoracial identities, perhaps because of a perceived threat to their chances of admission. Additionally, institutional actors may willfully ignore race unknown students (not following up upon enrollment) because this category may enhance the appearance of campus diversity by diminishing the percentages of students in over-represented ethnoracial groups. In this way, high rates of race unknown students may be a product of prestigious and highly competitive educational processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)640-645
Number of pages6
JournalPolicy Futures in Education
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education


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