The role of race in college admissions

Dr. Julie Park of the University of Maryland discusses themes from her book, Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data.

Adam Loyd
April 4, 2019
Julie Park addresses Exonians in the Forum

Dr. Park addresses Exonians in the Forum.

In a recent visit to Exeter, Dr. Julie Park, associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, addressed students and faculty about common fallacies associated with diversity on college campuses, including how race factors into the admissions process and the current “racial climate” at schools across the country. 

Park’s 2018 book, Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data, tackles the complexities of the perception of diversity on modern college campuses, a book she was motivated to write after hearing “misconceptions, stereotypes and assumptions” about race in higher education. In her presentation, Park provided a series of common myths and how data disproves each misconception. 

One of the fallacies Park says she’s heard repeatedly is that most students of color admitted into elite colleges come from wealthy backgrounds, subverting the objective of race-conscious admissions. Park referenced the “racial wealth gap” of college students and cited the William G. Bowen and Derek Bok book, The Shape of the River, when saying “African-American students are seven times more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic background than white students.” 

Another common misconception, according to Park, is the idea that minority college students “self-segregate,” or spend time exclusively with classmates of their own race in social settings or in school sponsored minority groups or clubs, therefore making campuses more divided. Park cited data from “thousands of students” from varying data sets saying, “students of color have the highest rate of cross-racial interactions and interracial friendships in college.” Park cited research that suggests students of color who are “involved in ethnic student organizations have been linked with higher rates of cross-racial engagement.”

Park explained why she is an advocate for diversity on college campuses by commenting on the current landscape of American culture, which she says guides people toward “echo chambers” that reiterate their own beliefs, essentially closing them off to the consideration of other people’s points of view. “The classroom space is so important in creating an environment where people can share different types of experiences, can challenge, can disagree with each other even and hopefully come to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what they believe,” she said.

To fully understand how the perception of these race-based myths become reality, Park suggested taking a step back to think about how the brain works in a broader sense. 

“We’re very prone to misinformation, to thinking that we know a lot, when in reality we don’t always know what’s going on,” she said. Park presented the concept of “cognitive bias,” or the idea that in these instances, people will allow the most easily digestible conclusion to enter their brains as fact. 

Park’s lecture was part of a two-day engagement coordinated by the Office of Multicultural Affairs that also included a panel discussion titled “The Role of Race in College Admissions: The Harvard Lawsuit and What’s at Stake.” Joining park on the panel was former dean of students at Columbia University, Roger Lehecka and Exeter alumna Julie Chung ’16, the former president of the Asian American Women's Association at Harvard College. Park served as a consulting expert for Harvard in a lawsuit that alleges the school held Asian-American applicants to higher admissions standards than other prospective students. A federal judge is expected to render a ruling in the case this spring.