May 30, 2014

Colleges Market Diversity to Appeal to Growing Market

A group of Avid and PALS R. C. Clark High School students from Plano tour the main campus of UT. Photo by Victoria Acevedo.

A group of Avid and PALS R. C. Clark High School students from Plano tour the main campus of UT. Photo by Victoria Acevedo.

By Alyssa Sanchez
For Reporting Texas

It happened several years ago, but the story of how the University of Wisconsin photoshopped an African-American student’s face into promotional material still resonates. The story goes like this: Student Diallo Shabazz was surprised to learn that he made the cover of the University of Wisconsin’s 2000 admissions booklet. The cover depicted a crowd at a football game. Shabazz had never attended a game, but his face had been added.

Because it was apparent that the photo had been modified to disguise an embarrassing lack of diversity at the school, which had an 82 percent white enrollment in 2000, the image – and story — went viral. It now serves as an example of how colleges sometimes inflate their racial and ethnic diversity. How colleges promote their diversity has become a topic of jokes. But it is also a topic for research.

A 2013 study, “We’ve Got Minorities, Yes We Do,” showed that in their attempts to attract new students, colleges often portray their ideal of diversity rather than the school’s reality. The study, which appeared in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, also said colleges portray themselves in a diverse light to reach minorities and help in recruitment.

One of the study’s authors, Timothy Pippert, who teaches sociology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, said the elite schools have an edge in recruiting minority students. “Colleges are pretty aware that the most elite schools have the ability to be more diverse,” he said in a telephone interview. “A lot of schools want to emulate that.”

Pippert and a team of researchers studied more than 10,000 images included in brochures from 164 accredited four-year colleges. The researchers found several motives behind colleges’ marketing of diversity. One is economic: Researchers say they discovered that colleges regard recruiting minorities as a way to increase enrollment.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, four-year colleges enrolled 7.2 million white, 2.4 million Hispanic and 1.7  million African American students. But the numbers of minorities attending college are growing. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that between 2006 and 2012 the percentage of Hispanics enrolled in college rose to 17 percent from 11; African Americans rose by 1 percentage point, to 15 percent. Meanwhile, whites’ college enrollment declined in the same period, to 58 percent from 67 percent.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that there are 45 public and 72 private four-year institutions in Texas. Texas A&M in College Station and the University of Texas at Austin rank as the Texas colleges with the largest enrollments.

The online brochure for the University of Texas has 60 photographs featuring 28 students. Of those people, 15, or 53 percent, are black or Hispanic looking. (A reporter established the numbers by contrasting the total number of people clearly visible in the brochure photos, with the number of black or Hispanic-looking students.) The UT website reports an enrollment that is 18 percent Hispanic and 4 percent African American in fall 2013.

Leslie Blair, the communications director for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas, said UT wants “to show an inclusive campus that is welcoming to all.”

“The University of Texas is constantly becoming more diverse,” Blair said.

Texas A&M in College Station also depicts a diverse student body. The largest online viewbook shows 30 photos featuring 48 people. Of those students, 12 percent are Hispanic-looking and 20 percent are African American. A&M’s enrollment profile, from its website, shows a student body that is 20 percent Hispanic and 3.2 percent African American.

According to Augsburg College sociologist Pippert, there hasn’t been much research inside the United States on how diversity marketing can affect students.

Some Texas schools’ promotional material appears to accurately reflect their enrollment. For instance, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth features mostly white students in its promotional materials. Twenty photos of 42 students are included in its viewbook. Only 4 percent were Hispanic-looking, and 7 percent were African American. That would be roughly consistent with numbers reported by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board: TCU’s student body is 73.5 percent white, 5.1 percent African American, and 10.2 percent are Hispanic.