Study: Black Students Who Show Interest in Black Activism Face Admissions Barriers - Higher Education
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Study: Black Students Who Show Interest in Black Activism Face Admissions Barriers


Black students who show a penchant for Black activism in inquiry emails to historically and predominately White colleges have a greater chance of being ignored by college admissions counselors at those universities, according to research findings published in an academic article this month.

The article “We Want Black Students, Just Not You: How White Admissions Counselors Screen Black Prospective Students,” asserts that predominantly White schools want Black students, but that desire is based on the racial “palatability” of the student.

Dr. Ted Thornhill

White admissions counselors responded to the emails from Black students who presented as “deracialized and apolitical,” 65 percent of the time, but responded to emails with antiracial narratives 55 percent of the time, according to the study.

The author of the study, Dr. Ted Thornhill, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University, said he and his staff arrived at their conclusions after sending emails from fictitious students to 517 admissions counselors at as many colleges and studying the number of responds they received.

They used first names they surmised a White admissions counselor may think belonged to a Black student and paired those names with the most common surnames for Black people as reported by the U.S. Census, which tracks the most common names by race, Thornhill said.

Admissions counselors were determined to be White after researchers studied their pictures online.

There’s no way to determine that 100 percent of the 517 counselors contacted were, in fact, White, he said.

But research assistants were instructed to choose those who they thought would be ascribed as White by most people, Thornhill said.

According to the article, the purpose of the study is to explore the Intraracial Discrimination Theory, that is, the act of Whites screening Blacks and eliminating those suspected to be overly concerned with race.

The findings illustrate convincing evidence of this theory within the White admissions environment, according to the article.

When asked if the results of the study would have an impact on college admissions, Thornhill said, he doesn’t have faith in the essential goodness of college admissions administrators.

The study includes his suggestions for improving the admissions screening process, so he is “cautiously” hopeful they will be considered, Thornhill said.

“I don’t think one article will change the way things have been done for perhaps hundreds of years,” he said.

One of his suggestions calls for the auditing of admissions emails.

“We all do better when we know we are being watched,” Thornhill said.

The findings have created a buzz and were the impetus for a panel discussion this month at Howard University, that included Thornhill, Dr. Tiffany Jones, director of education policy at the Education Trust and David Hawkins, executive director of policy for the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

He’s noticed that the information from the study has been shared with enrollment leaders who have indicated they will have conservations with their staff about it, Thornhill said.

Thornhill isn’t new to the attention and ire raised by his work; earlier this year, he appeared on CNN and in print publications because he taught a class called “White Racism.” He also received death threats because of the class, resulting in police officers being stationed outside his classroom for the rest of the semester, he said.

He’s unfazed.

The article was published by the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, an American Sociological Association Journal.

Jamie Rogers can be reached at

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