Roughly 2.4 percent of Americans identified as multiracial in the 2000 census. In 2010, that number increased to 2.9 percent, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that individuals identifying as multiracial will dramatically rise in the following decades. This increase can in part be attributed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize interracial marriage in the case Loving v. Virginia, in 1967, sparking what many call the “multiracial baby boom.”
However, the U.S. census currently restricts individuals by allowing them to define themselves as being in only one of five racial categories; multiracial individuals often do not identify with these classifications because they adhere to multiple racial and cultural identities.
The rise in the number of young people who identify as multiracial presents higher education institutions with an opportunity to expand their racial categories to better serve this growing population and become more inclusive in the process.
Sometimes living in a society that in many ways emphasizes single-race families places stress on these students on campus. “I’ve felt the pressure from society to identify with one racial identity… as if more than one is unfathomable,” says Lauren Burdette, a recent graduate of the University of Central Arkansas who identifies as multiracial.
Multiracial students often express feelings of frustration and alienation when required to identify themselves by selecting only one racial category on college admission and enrollment forms. “It was excruciating because I had to decide which part of my identity to leave out,” says Callie Folke, an incoming freshman at Bryn Mawr College who identifies as multiracial. “I don’t like picking ‘other’ because that makes me feel as though I’m some sort of alien.”
Forms are often the first contact students have with an institution. Therefore, including options for multicultural students to accurately self-identify can signal a welcoming environment and respect for their personal identity.
Identity-based student organizations have a longstanding presence on college campuses. Their operations have proven vital in assisting with identity development, engagement, and retention for underrepresented students. However, multiracial student organizations are almost nonexistent and only recently emerged in the 1990s. Today, multiracial students still face challenges, such as difficulty finding mentors, networks, and welcoming spaces on campus.
“I have not found a campus mentor who shares my Afro-Latino identity,” says Samuel Ortiz, a student at Columbia University in New York City who identifies as multiracial. “I was, however, able to connect with other students of similar backgrounds.”
Recognizing this issue, a few schools — including Columbia — are attempting to address it.
Presently, institutions overwhelmingly focus on academic initiatives to support these students, rather than social services. Through curricula, schools attempt to integrate identity-exploration narratives into assignments, courses, independent study projects, and cross-disciplinary studies.— not only for multiracial students, but for all diverse students and perspectives.
“[Columbia] itself did not directly provide [me with] opportunities to explore my Afro-Latino heritage,” Ortiz says, “but it did allow and support the efforts of students who wanted to create spaces and opportunities to speak about and explore their identities.”
Multiracial students are increasingly displeased with the standard racial categories used by schools, and they commonly report not feeling welcome on campus. For instance, Mia Hicks, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who identifies as multiracial, says her campus adviser lacked the training to know how to help; he failed to both provide suggestions on how to gain a greater sense of inclusion and resources to help her explore her personal identity. “I was automatically added into an African American student group and would receive countless emails,” Hicks says. “I have never been in a mono-cultural based group and was not really interested.”
Hicks’ experience is not uncommon. Administrators nationally echo similar stress, saying they feel unprepared to help with the problems encountered by multiracial students.
However, Columbia — along with other schools — is making progress. After determining the challenges and struggles of its multiracial students, Columbia initiated a novel student group focused solely on helping them. Prior to the creation of this group, numerous multiracial students on campus expressed feeling torn when asked to choose between race-based groups and felt that no place and no one on campus celebrated their identity.
While pleased with these efforts, Columbia students identifying as multiracial believe the university still has more to do, like developing stronger networks between current multiracial students and alumni.
Improving the college experience for multiracial students will require modifying existing student data-collection methods and providing better resources and support to ensure their inclusion. While this will only result via dramatic structural changes, it will benefit these students in the future. In 2010, some institutions implemented an option allowing students to choose “two or more races” as a category, indicating that change is occurring.●
Allen Kenneth Schaidle is an independent education consultant and a graduate student studying higher education at the University of Oxford in England.