And yet these days, white students are now only 43 percent of the student body at Rice [University in Houston], where an applicant’s racial identification can become an admissions game changer. This can be especially true during the “committee round” in early spring, when only a few dozen slots might remain for a freshman class expected to number about 1,000.
At that stage, a core group of five to seven bleary-eyed admissions officers will convene for debate around a rectangular laminate table strewn with coffee cups and half-eaten doughnuts as the applications of those students still under consideration are projected onto a 60-inch plasma TV screen.
For most of the nearly 14,000 who applied this year, the final decision — admit or deny — was a relatively straightforward one resolved early on, based on the admissions officers’ sampling of factors like test scores, grades, extracurricular activities and recommendations.
But there are several thousand applicants whose fate might still be in limbo by the committee round because their qualifications can seem fairly indistinguishable from one another. This is when an applicant’s race — or races — might tip the balance.
Oh, come on, this is the oldest myth in the college affirmative action book: that quotas only "tip the balance" when applicants "seem fairly indistinguishable." The white-black SAT gap at Rice back during the 400-1600 scoring days was 271 points, according to The Bell Curve. That was the biggest gap found out of a couple of dozen college. Of course, as the Rice president irritatedly pointed out to me when I called Rice's distinction to his attention at an alumni fundraiser, Rice is the smallest school to play Div. I football, so the proportion of football players' SAT scores counted under the black total is larger at Rice than elsewhere. But, still ...
So, what are the essays for?
“From an academic standpoint, the qualifying records, the test scores, how many AP courses, they may all look alike,” said Chris Muñoz, vice president for enrollment at Rice since 2006. “That’s when we might go and say, ‘This kid has a Spanish surname. Let’s see what he wrote about.’ Right or wrong, it can make a difference.” ...
Still, Rice knows that however much it emphasizes that students should be guided by the honor principle in making such calls, some will seek to stretch the new definitions to their own gain.
“There are players out there,” said Julie Browning, the longtime dean of undergraduate admission at Rice.
Mindful of that, Rice admissions officials try to reconcile whatever boxes an applicant may have checked with the rest of the application.
For example, in its customized supplement to the Common Application, Rice asks an essay question about “the unique life experiences and cultural traditions” that a student might bring.
“If they care about their cultural heritage, it comes through,” Ms. Browning said. “If they’re lukewarm about it, and they’re trying to make it something they care about, it comes through.”
One commenter once noted that Dreams from My Father sounds like the President's monstrously enlarged Diversity Essay.
And yet, at Rice, the chances that a multiracial applicant might be admitted have climbed over the last five years to 23 percent this year. (By contrast, the admission rate for the freshman class as a whole this year was about 19 percent.)
Adding to the confusion in admissions offices is that there is no standard definition, in higher education or elsewhere, of what it means to be mixed race. But the hundreds of colleges, including Rice, that accept the Common Application have allowed students to mark more than one box for several years now.
Over the last five years, the number of applicants to Rice who characterize themselves as of more than one race has skyrocketed to 564 from 8. Multiracial students now account for about 6 percent of the freshman class at Rice, nearly as many as those who identify themselves as “black or African-American.” (Nationally, about 3 percent of Americans identify themselves as mixed-race.)
I know from personal experience of a highly marginal case that they're going to treat applicants who assert any black ancestry as BLACK. The black legislators in Sacramento don't ask Berkeley for pictures of the students, they just want to know the numbers.
Mr. Muñoz, who is ultimately responsible for Rice’s effort to promote diversity on campus, says he has been guided by the template of his own mixed-race family. He is Mexican-American, the first in his family to go to college, while his wife is of Irish descent. They have three grown children.
“I am honoring, best I can, how the students see themselves,” Mr. Muñoz said. “If they say they’re mixed, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh no, you’re black.’ I’m going to say, ‘You’re mixed.’ Isn’t that O.K.?”
And, he added, “We’re not out to play ‘gotcha.’ In all things there is an element of trust.”
Still, he acknowledges, such questions give applicants (and their families) wide latitude.
An applicant’s final determination of what to say about race is often made in consultation with a college counselor. Many counselors will convey to families that a multiracial applicant — like one who is black and Chinese — often has a better chance of being admitted to a highly selective college than those in any other racial or ethnic category.