Hispanic? Yes or No? Just How Effective Are The New Ethnicity Data Gathering Instruments?

Equity and Diversity Action Committee
Equity and Diversity Action Committee

"Diversity is the art of collectively valuing every individual."-Arin N. Reeves

As new federal and state mandates for collecting and reporting ethnicity data for our students and employees take effect this year, we have an opportunity to take a critical look at the new ethnicity data gathering and reporting instrument that our colleges and the state will using for the foreseeable future. This new federally developed and required ethnicity survey, which is to be given to entering students (and employees), will be an important tool for many institutional decisions in the coming years. At the Spring 2009 Academic Senate Plenary Session, Patrick Perry, Vice Chancellor of the California Community College System, presented a thoughtful and thorough overview of the new data gathering and reporting process, giving attendees the opportunity to experience the process of answering the ethnicity questions. First, we responded to ethnicity options listed on the old survey questionnaire, the options as are currently listed on college applications and hiring materials, and then those on the new questionnaire. Electronic "clickers" made the collective results quickly available. The results were significantly different for the new questionnaire, and there were many questions and concerns about the new format from the over 250 faculty attendees who participated in identifying and reporting their ethnicities.

The new instructions and questionnaire look like this:

Per United States Department of Education guidelines, educational institutions will be required to collect racial and ethnic data using a two-part question. The first question is whether the respondent is Hispanic/Latino. The second question is whether the respondent is from one or more races.

Student / Employee Questions:
Question #1: Are you Hispanic or Latino? Y or N
? Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano
? Central American
? South American
? Hispanic Other

Question #2: What is your race / ethnicity?
(Check one or more.)
? Asian Indian
? Chinese
? Japanese
? Korean
? Laotian
? Cambodian
? Vietnamese
? Filipino
? Asian Other
? Black or African American
? American Indian / Alaskan Native
? Guamanian
? Hawaiian
? Samoan
? Pacific Islander Other
? White

So, with the identical group of respondents, how did the results from the new form compare to the results from the old form?

  • The number of Asians remained the same at 10%
  • The number of African Americans dropped from 7% to 5%
  • Filipinos and Pacific Islanders stayed the same at 0%
  • Hispanic/Latinos moved from 11% to 16%
  • Whites dropped from 67% to 54%
  • `Other" dropped from 4% to NA
  • `Multi-Racial' (not on the old form) was 15%

The full impact of this new survey questionnaire is unknown, and questions and concerns come to mind when pondering the results of the survey and how we will make critical decisions for assisting students. Some questions are provided below, and we know that your faculty will have many more as the new survey is rolled out across the state and nation:

  • What are the consequences of prioritizing the Hispanic/Latino category in this way? It was no accident that the percentage of Hispanic/Latinos went up in the results of the second questionnaire. Question #1 has a trump card-like effect in that a `yes' means that the individual will be counted as "Hispanic" regardless of what other ethnicities he or she marked in question # 2. This could be a move in a positive direction since the fastest growing group in the country may receive more recognition for their presence and contributions. But will it have a positive or a negative effect on services provided to its members? Will services be diminished because of the presumed power of the group? Will this give a false picture of our Hispanic/Latino communities as the process minimizes the multi-ethnic element of the Hispanic/Latino community?
  • Approximately one half of those who traditionally have described themselves as Native American are also Hispanic. The way the Federal report works is that if you answered "Yes" to Q1 (Hispanic: Y/N), you are "Hispanic" regardless of what you answer in Q2 -regardless of whether you even answered Q2! The consequence, at the federal level, at least, is that the apparent number of Native Americans in our schools will drop. Will this help or hinder our Native American students?
  • Similarly, since some Hispanic/Latinos are at least partly African American, will this new reporting system create an apparent drop in African American student numbers? If so, what will be the effect on their special programs and curricula? In fact, according to the 2000 census, 22% of Whites, 9% of Pacific Islanders, and 1% of Asians identify as part Hispanic. What effect will the new survey have on their reported numbers?
  • The category of mixed race includes all people who marked "No" to Q1 and two or more boxes in Q2. This will reduce the numbers in all groups, excluding Hispanic/Latinos. Given that the mixed race groups will themselves be very diverse, how useful will this information be?
  • What dynamic does this set up among other ethnic groups, given that they are now `trumped' by another?
  • How about students from the Middle East? Shouldn't we acknowledge them as representing a distinct set of languages, cultures, and ethnicities, having a huge impact on our educational institutions?
  • What effect will taking this survey have on students who are entering our colleges? What does it feel like to be asked to pigeonhole yourself into these categories that may not reflect your complete cultural/ethnic identity, and/or experience? The California report on ethnicity for Fall of 2008 showed more than 10% of California Community College students as "other." 185,089 students (out of 1,810,773) were either confused by the questionnaire, unable to place themselves into one of the proffered categories, or were perhaps offended by the whole idea of identifying themselves in this way. Will the new data-gathering instrument be any more inclusive?
  • Must we continue to use the outmoded, unscientific idea of "race" as an element of the questionnaire? And why do we identify the idea of race with national origin? Isn't this a throwback to the pernicious 19th century ideas that tried to justify white supremacy?
  • Can We Do Better?
    Of course we can. We need many types of data that describe our students: ethnicity, cultural information, language experience, educational experience, socio-economic status, family educational background-information about our student populations that will help us make our institutions more inclusive, egalitarian, and effective in providing educational opportunities for all of our students. Schools and districts can add to the data mandated by the federal and state guidelines, and would benefit from doing so.

    Does the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges want to weigh in on the issue of developing more coherent, comprehensive, and useful tools for gathering ethnicity data from our students and employees? Yes. We will have an opportunity to dialog with colleagues about tracking student progress, equity, retention, disparities in success, and more, at the equity and diversity institute in February 2010. And, the Equity and Diversity Action Committee is preparing an update to the 2002 Academic Senate paper on student equity, and a discussion of the impact of the new survey will be included.