By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
Which prospective Black college students are more likely to get a response from White admissions counselors at predominantly White institutions (PWIs)?
According to a study Florida Gulf Coast University sociologist Ted Thornhill published September 5, White gatekeepers are more responsive to Black students who present themselves as deracialized and racially apolitical.
Meanwhile, Black college candidates exhibiting interest in racial justice, community activism and antiracism are less likely to receive a response from White admissions officers, according to Thornhill’s research. His paper is called “We Want Black Students, Just Not You: How White Admissions Officers Screen Black Prospective Students.” It was published in “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity,” a journal that’s published quarterly in concert with the American Sociological Association.
The research asks whether potential Black applicants interested in racial justice should whitewash their interests at the risk of not getting a response, or reveal their interests and let the chips fall where they may.
Thornhill, who presented the findings of his study Sept. 5 during a panel at Howard University, said the results were disturbing, but not surprising.
“Research shows that most Whites are colorblind and they believe that race no longer matters — that racism is a thing of the past,” Thornhill told the AFRO. “They often get uncomfortable and angry when Blacks and non-Black people of color challenge their colorblind thinking. And so, the anti-racist narrative in my study likely produced that sentiment in many of these White counselors.”
Thornhill started his project in 2015, by devising four narratives of fictitious Black students representing varying degrees of Blackness that he put into the body of the emails. Next, Thornhill devised and tested names that he used for email addresses that he felt would identify the student as Black (for example, Jamal Jackson and Lakeisha Lewis). Finally, he developed a sample of White admission counselors he would send the emails to.
Posing as those bogus students, Thornhill emailed two inquiries a month apart to 517 White admissions counselors at the same number of small to medium sized liberal arts colleges and regional colleges and universities.
In each inquiry, a “student” from two of the four groups asked whether they’d be a good fit for the school.
Thornhill’s findings showed that overall, White admissions officers were 26 percent less likely to respond to emails from Black high school students who exhibited concerns about ongoing racism, with White male counselors being the least likely to respond to these students. When those students were young Black women, White male counselors were nearly 50 percent less likely to respond, according to the study.
Meanwhile, White admissions counselors responded to Black students’ with less racially specific names mails 65 percent of the time, while racially salient Black students achieved a response rate of 55 percent, according to the study. Overall, roughly 40 percent of the 1,034 emails Thornhill sent to White admissions counselors were not answered and for certain subgroups of Black students, the percentage shot up to nearly two thirds.
“I think it’s likely a conservative estimate if anything because … it really takes little effort when someone sends an email to say, ‘Thank you for your email. Please check out this link or this part of our website,’” Thornhill said. “These individuals that claim to be colorblind, they’re not supposed to care. They don’t see the irony.”
David Hawkins, executive director for policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said screening potential candidates who appear to care about racial justice is a poor indicator of who will fight the power on campus versus who won’t, because someone who may not care about racial matters could change his or her mind after experiencing racism on campus.
“Admission offices would be probably participating in an exercise of futility if they tried to sort of identify who was going to be more politically active than not,” said Hawkins, who is helping Thornhill publicize his findings.
Thornhill, meanwhile, is hopeful that White enrollment leaders take the results to heart and start drafting and implementing policies that would stop admissions counselors from screening students based on their Blackness.
“I don’t think anything will go away completely, but if they ameliorate the problem, that will be better than the status quo,” Thornhill said.