Freedom gives us, as Americans, the power to choose. It makes our form of government unique in several practical ways. One is the opportunity to create and own our own identity, a practice praised by rugged individualists and inclusivity activists alike. 

Later this month, proposed data collection changes by the U.S. Department of Education will solidify the ability to self-identify as the American ideal. Yet, in so doing, it will also cast aside the identity of those born outside of the United States. 

Specifically, a change is proposed to classify undocumented students attending colleges and universities that receive federal student aid funding as either “race/ethnicity unknown” or, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, as “nonresidents.”    

In practical terms, this change under consideration is good, bad, and potentially ugly. Here’s why. 

The good

The proposed change provides additional clarity to institutions often confused about how to classify undocumented students. This change provides clear, direct decision points, resulting in more consistent and arguably better data collected by a federal agency.  

At the same time, institutions can continue to collect and report on their data about their student body in ways they deem important—as long as they can group them into the categories required by the Department of Education. One college that shared such data showed an increase in students of color from 53 percent to 59 percent when all student identities were allowed to be recognized.  

The bad

For institutions that tend to serve larger populations of undocumented students, this classification change limits the proportional representation of race and ethnicities on a campus according to federal counts—the counts used for federal funding allocations and scorecard metrics. 

One example includes a determination of institutional eligibility to be designated as a minority-serving institution—a designation dependent on the percentage of a particular race or ethnicity a college or university enrolls. Or it could impact an institution’s ability to make the case for scholarships for the students.  

The ugly

In its worst form, the classification of undocumented students as either “race/ethnicity unknown” or “nonresident” provides a way to locate people more easily should a governing entity decide—as history has repeatedly shown—to isolate a particular group of individuals for “security” purposes or deportation. 

And so, we now sit on a razor’s edge with more consistent data, but at a cost. It comes with a simple reminder that the benefits of freedom extend to the free, yet not to those who aspire to be.  

Your feedback on this topic is important and can influence the decision of policymakers. Please submit a comment on the proposed change.

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