What race should high school students record in the college applications? The New York Times takes up this apparently crucial question in a recent article. According to a piece by Susan Saulny and Jacques Steinberg:

At the beginning of the college application season last fall, Natasha Scott, a high school senior of mixed racial heritage in Beltsville, Md., vented about a personal dilemma on College Confidential, the go-to electronic bulletin board for anonymous conversation about admissions.

“I just realized that my race is something I have to think about,” she wrote, describing herself as having an Asian mother and a black father. “It pains me to say this, but putting down black might help my admissions chances and putting down Asian might hurt it.”

Now obviously this is something about which a nervous high school student might worry, but it doesn’t really matter. Sure it might perplex them at first, but it’s an easy question to answer. Return the race that’s most likely to get you admitted. Race is an ambiguous, synthetic grouping. Exploit it; that’s absolutely appropriate.

While it would be dishonest, in fact offensive, to do something like report African-American if your mother were, say, a white woman of English descent born in South Africa, beyond something like that if colleges use crude measures to promote diversity, prospective students should feel free to use that however they wish. It’s not like American colleges are planning to do anything with your ethnic diversity other then report it back to U.S. News and World Report anyway.

According to the article:

Some scholars worry that the growth in multiracial applicants could further erode the original intent of affirmative action, which is to help disadvantaged minorities. For example, families with one black parent and one white parent are on average more affluent than families with two black parents. When choosing between two such applicants, some universities might lean toward the multiracial student because he will need less financial aid while still counting toward affirmative-action goals.

“How do we include multiracials in our view of an egalitarian society and not do it in a way that disadvantages other groups?” said Ulli K. Ryder, visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.

Well fine, but it’s not “the growth in multiracial applicants” that’s “eroding the original intent of affirmative action.” The article addresses the multiracial issue as if it were a real problem, rather than the symptom of another problem, which is that most diversity in elite colleges is pretty pathetic.

Having gotten to the point where they understand that racial diversity matters and can perhaps be a good thing, most of the very elite colleges go no further and aim only for token diversity. With few exceptions, diversity here mostly means a tiny sliver of rich black and Hispanic students are educated in a campus full of rich white and Asian ones. Filling out questions of diversity may give students pause, but it’s a personal quandary.

If colleges want to promote real diversity, they’d be more serious about recruiting poor students, no matter where their ancestors are from. That would take care of economic diversity, but it would also address racial diversity, real racial diversity. That would promote the real intent of affirmative action, “to help disadvantages minorities,” as Saulny and Steinberg write. Colleges could do this. But they aren’t.

As admission currently works, students shouldn’t worry much about which box they fill out; after their parents drop them off, no one will care again.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer