A new report from the online magazine Inside Higher Ed reveals that a researcher has caught universities loading their publicity photographs with black students.
"Sometimes you see the same black kid in every picture," said George Dehne, who runs an admissions consulting firm and was quoted in the online report.
"We tell colleges that it's a mistake and they shouldn't do it, but we get overruled," he said.
The report said an Augsburg College sociologist worked with an undergraduate to review the viewbooks of hundreds of randomly selected four-year colleges and universities. Numbers and percentages on racially identifiable student photographs were collected, as well as the actual minority make-up of the student bodies.
"The findings: Black students make up an average of 7.9 percent of students at the colleges studied, but 12.4 percent of those in viewbooks. Asian students are also more likely to be found in viewbooks than on campus, making up 3.3 percent of real students on average and 5.1 percent of portrayed students," the report said.
"The researchers … feel less confident about figures for Latino students," the report said. The findings were presented recently at a meeting of the Midwest Sociological Society.
The researcher found "more than 75 percent of colleges appeared to over-represent black students in viewbooks."
The report noted that universities should have learned about such strategies already.
"In September of 2000, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Idaho were both embarrassed when they were forced to admit that they had doctored promotional photographs to make their campuses look diverse," the report said. "In both cases, non-white faces were added to real student photographs of all-white groups."
"At the universities involved, officials insisted that they meant well, but just about everyone agreed that Photoshop diversity isn't the real thing," the report said.
Timothy Pippert, an assistant professor of sociology at Augsburg and study leader, said the presence of blacks means diversity for many people.
"If you show African American students, people think that means your institution is diverse,” he told Inside Higher Ed. "They are defining diversity as that face."
He said schools apparently are trying to send a message that "this is a place where you'd be welcome."
But Dehne suggested the "presentation" of an inflated population of minorities could backfire.
"When kids come to campus, they look around for all those extra people and don't find them," he told the reporter.
Pippert said his research didn't address issues about the accuracy of representations of other segments of the student population, but one student assistant in the research project found the photographs chosen by universities for their promotions were "hot chicks and minorities."