University officials are inviting students to update their race and ethnicity information in an effort to comply with changes in the way the U.S. Department of Education collects and reports race and ethnicity information.

The changes will shift the process of reporting one’s racial information so that participating students and faculty have to first identify as either Latino, Hispanic or neither. After that step, they can then select from a longer list of racial categories.

The hope is that with this new system, historical undercounting of Hispanic and Latino communities will be avoided.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which was passed on Aug. 14, 2008, is expected to increase the number of students and faculty reporting as being Hispanic or Latino, while decreasing the number of students reporting all other racial or ethnic categories..

The law requires changes to be adopted by 2010.

Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, informed University students of the change by e-mail earlier this week, and invited them to update their racial and ethnic information through Wolverine Access.

The University’s Committee on Race/Ethnicity Reporting, which was created following the announcement of the changes, recommended that the University resurvey its current students and faculty because there is “no simple conversion between the old and new categories,” according to a committee report.

The survey on Wolverine Access asks University faculty and students to identify themselves as either Hispanic, Latino or neither and then choose one or more of the following racial categories: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and/or White.

If a student decides to identify as multiple races or ethnic groups and none are Hispanic or Latino, the new process doesn’t allow that student to choose a primary identification.

Gretchen Weir, assistant vice provost for academic affairs, said she thinks that despite the option for multiple identifications, the new process is limited in its ability to reflect the variety of ways people self-identify.

“Lots of people wrote back (after receiving the e-mail from Monts) saying that the questions didn’t give them the kind of options they would like,” Weir said. “As an institution, we absolutely understand and agree with that.”

Weir said University officials share in the confusion many feel over the change, like why the Hispanic and Latino question is posed before asking students to identify with another race or ethnic group or why the survey doesn’t provide an option to self-identify.

But Weir added that one of the reasons for the change is that students who are Hispanic or Latino also identify as one of the other racial categories, so Hispanic and Latino communities often end up being underreported.

In addition to resurveying current students and faculty, the committee made a number of other recommendations for how the University should comply with the new regulations.

The committee concluded that the University should “discontinue its current practice of allowing students applying for admission to self-identify using multi-ethnic or multi-racial labels of their own choosing,” according to a committee report.

Weir said that in the process of reviewing the government-required changes, the committee discussed whether or not the University should add additional racial and ethnic categories to those already offered by the Department of Education.

But the committee then encountered difficulty defining those additional categories so it decided the University shouldn’t survey racial and ethnic identification beyond that which is required of it by law.

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