As a general rule, American universities are required to follow reporting guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (part of the US Department of Labor), asking for demographic data about students, employees, and applicants, as partial documentation of their adherence to various titles of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and several other criteria.
The Department of Education's guidelines include the following definitions (emphasis in the original):
- An Asian person has origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, including,
for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan,
the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
- An American Indian or Alaska Native person has origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central
America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community
- A Black or African American person has origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as "Haitian" or "Negro" can
be used in addition to "Black or African American."
- A Hispanic or Latino person is of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin,
regardless of race. The term "Spanish origin" can be used in addition
to "Hispanic or Latino."
- A Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander person has origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other
- A White person has origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.
Similar definitions are included in EEOC sample self-reporting forms. Some universities offer mild revisions of the federal definitions (for example, removing the optional label "Negro" and replacing "American Indian" with "Native American").
The Department of Education standards allow, and the EEOC standards require, asking each applicant (for education or employment) to self-identify their own race(s) and ethnicity(ies). In particular, the guidelines explicitly allow each respondent to specify multiple races and/or ethnic groups. The definitions are guidelines for the applicants to help them self-identify.
So, to answer the original question: If an applicant self-identifies as African American, they are African American for purposes of statistical reporting to the federal government.