Info-Wars in the College Admissions Debate

Credit: Bing Image Creator. Pry the data from my cold dead digital fingers.

by James A. Bacon

It will be exceedingly difficult to hold an honest conversation in Virginia about the role of race in higher-education admissions and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. College administrators are the gatekeepers of data critical to the discussion and they will not share it.

I have been stymied twice this week in my efforts to acquire admissions data: once by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and once by the University of Virginia. SCHEV and UVa officials cite various justifications for being unable to supply the numbers, but I believe the underlying reason is that university administrators simply don’t want to make the data available. Why? Because he who controls the data controls the narrative.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling restricting the use of race as a factor in admissions, I have embarked upon the mission of laying out the data available in the public domain: how have admissions and enrollment patterns evolved over the past 1o to 20 years? How have preferential policies for selected minorities fared, as tracked by measures of student thriving such as feelings of “belonging,” drop-out rates, student-loan debt burdens and post-graduate income?

In recent posts, I have documented that males and Whites are slightly under-represented in entering classes at UVa, while my colleague Walter Smith has described UVa’s use of the Landscape platform to provide school- and neighborhood-specific “context” for applicants. Last year Smith shed light on the new racial calculus in UVa admissions by showing how offers to applicants vary by race/ethnicity and legacy status. The Office of Admissions, which was commendably open with its data last year, stopped providing it after we published his article.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) maintains a searchable online database of higher-ed statistics regarding enrollment, admissions, tuition & fees, financial aid, student debt, retention rates, and degrees awarded. SCHEV breaks the data into dozens of different reports that are searchable by individual institution. It is an invaluable resource for anyone analyzing higher-ed in Virginia.

Some categories of information are broken down by race/ethnicity. There is no trouble finding the racial breakdown for enrollment at every public and private institution in Virginia. Same for financial aid, student-loan debt, degrees granted, and other measures. Remarkably, statistics directly relevant to the controversies currently roiling higher-ed are not. SCHEV breaks down applications, admissions, yields (percentage of students accepting admissions offers), and enrollments many ways — by in/out-of-state status, Virginia locality, undergraduate/undergraduate status and other variables — but it does not report the numbers by race/ethnicity.

I asked Tod Massa, SCHEV’s data guru, if the Council could provide admissions data broken down by race/ethnicity. In my experience, Massa is unfailingly helpful to anyone with questions about higher-ed statistics, and he responded immediately to my query. Here is his response:

We never asked the institutions to report those data to us as it was never a priority policy area of the Council or the Commonwealth. We do not create a reporting burden without a clear need or mandate.

I’m sorry I can’t help.  I know people are interested, as am I, but “interested ” has not been an adequate reason to create a reporting burden, increase costs, and perhaps being perceived as pushing a specific agenda one way or the other.

The Council has been concerned with the in-state/out-of-state issue as a matter of funding and serving the citizens of the Commonwealth. Beyond that, we have kept the collection very minimal.

With all due respect to Massa, I don’t accept this explanation. We know that the University of Virginia maintains the data because last year the Admissions Office shared it with Smith. It stretches credulity to think that every admissions office in Virginia, as mesmerized by race/ethnicity as each of them is, doesn’t maintain the same data, or to think that SCHEV would impose any additional cost “burden” by collecting it. If SCHEV doesn’t compile the data, it is because either (a) colleges and universities don’t want to share it or (b) the Council doesn’t want to publish it.

I received a similar rebuff, equally polite, from the University of Virginia regarding a different set of numbers.

In the June Board of Visitors meeting, Kevin McDonald, UVa’s vice president of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, made a remarkable statement to the effect that the sense of “belonging,” or feeling welcome and included, at UVa had declined in recent years for Black students.

The last time UVa conducted a “campus climate” survey was in 2018, just before Jim Ryan became president. The university has not repeated the exercise. But it does participate in a biennial survey conducted by a consortium of research universities. The Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey has queried students on a range of topics since 2016.

One set of questions asks students to agree or disagree with statements such as, “I feel I belong at the university,” and, “Students of my race/ethnicity are respected at this university.”

In the 2020 survey, 59% of UVa respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “diversity is important at this campus.” One might think it desirable to ascertain whether perceptions varied by race/ethnicity. Do Whites have a more sanguine view about diversity? Do Blacks feel more isolated and alienated than other groups? Have attitudes changed over time?

Christina Morrell, who heads UVa’s Office of Institutional Research and Analytics, was responsive, patient, and polite in answering a series of my queries. However, when I asked to see the SERU survey responses broken down by race, she said she could not oblige me.

“I am unable to provide that specific information as we do not publish SERU data by race,” she wrote. “Select institutional representatives have access to additional details for planning purposes but consistent with how we describe the data will be used as part of the research review process, we don’t make that detail publicly available.”

In the 2018 campus-climate survey, which was made public only last year, Blacks at UVa were significantly more likely than other groups to perceive themselves as having encountered racial discrimination or bias. Has that perception changed over the past five years for the better or worse as racial considerations in admissions and other aspects of university life have become institutionalized? Members of the UVa community don’t know — and we won’t know unless the Ryan administration chooses to share the data with us… Or unless the Board of Visitors asks to see the data underlying McDonald’s statement about Black belonging… or the Governor or lawmakers compel universities to report the data.

Until some higher authority pries the statistics from the cold, dead digital fingers of the universities, the debate across Virginia over admissions and DEI will occur in an environment in which administrators control access to the data.