I have a question about college education, or more specifically, admittance into college education in the US.

Since as far as I remember, I've always heard that colleges or universities in the US have a sort of special preference for admitting people that are considered "minorities". I would like to know if this is true, and if so, what it entails.

For example, I myself was born elsewhere but moved to the US at an early age, and eventually became a citizen. I don't know where this places me as far as "minority" programs go, if they exist. I imagine there'd be a sort of hierarchy such as scholarships > minority with scholarship > minority, but I really have no clue.

This interests me because I am studying in a university outside the US, and I'm considering applying for a PhD program in the US. I'm aware that schools function differently, but if someone knows of this topic for a specific school it'd help.

  • 1
    You are the perfect applicant: minorities get a small advantage in admissions, and U.S. citizens get a small advantage in admissions. The only flaw is that you're currently studying outside the U.S., and we tend to look on this unfavorably unless you're at a particularly famous university now.
    – vadim123
    Jan 29, 2014 at 14:56
  • @vadim123 Great! So where can I find out what universities have enough prestige to cancel out the negative factor of not being from the US?
    – GPerez
    Jan 29, 2014 at 15:02
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    Minorities are defined in the US by race, not by citizenship or national origin, except for "Hispanic", which in principle means loosely "has family roots in Latin America" (not Spain) but in practice means "self-identifies as Hispanic". Confused? Welcome to America.
    – JeffE
    Jan 29, 2014 at 15:07
  • @JeffE Spaniards are considered Hispanic, they aren't, however, considered Latino. Dec 24, 2015 at 3:24

2 Answers 2


There is a slight preference in the US for what are known as "underrepresented minorities"—that is, people who belong to groups who are not adequately represented in college enrollment relative to their proportion in the general population. That currently includes groups such as Hispanics, African-Americans, and Native Americans, but not groups such as Asian-Americans. So long as someone is a citizen, it does not really matter if one was naturalized or was a "born" citizen.

This does not mean that quotas are used, but it can be used as a "plus" quality in terms of admissions and hiring decisions.

  • 1
    @GPerez: I think you've misunderstood that sentence. Becoming a citizen doesn't change your race or ethnicity. Becoming a citizen does affect a lot of issues surrounding college enrollment, but unless you want to become president there's no difference between being naturalized or born a citizen. Jan 29, 2014 at 14:51
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    I think you're misunderstanding how the word "Hispanic" is used in the US. "Hispanic" refers to "a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin." My sister-in-law is Hispanic, but her family has lived in the US for 150 years. Jan 29, 2014 at 14:54
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    @NoahSnyder Viewpoints aside, now I'm a bit confused. First you said that becoming a citizen doesn't change your race, implying that race is something inherited biologically, but next you give a cultural definition? If the definition is cultural I certainly wouldn't be considered hispanic, seeing as the life I've known has been entirely in the US, and the culture I'm most familiar with is that of the US. So which is it? By "it" I mean an official definition used by schools, casting aside, as I've said, viewpoints (because a certain philosophy may question the well-definedness of "race").
    – GPerez
    Jan 29, 2014 at 15:11
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    @gperez Hispanic is not a race; it is a ethnicity. There can be black/white/indigenous/mestizo hispanic people. You can self-identify as "hispanic" in your forms, or not. It is up to you (assuming you have hispanic ancestry, which you just said you do).
    – cabad
    Jan 29, 2014 at 15:17
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    @Gperez There is no official definition. Aside from a few special cases like Native American tribes, who have official member lists, there is no formal definition. Race is a bit biological and a bit cultural and a bit something else. Mostly you're Hipsanic if you say you're Hispanic, and African American if you say you're African American, though if you don't have an appearance or a name that fits, you might find people have trouble accepting it. For purposes of admissions, it's mostly on the honor system. Jan 29, 2014 at 16:26

Since as far as I remember, I've always heard that colleges or universities in the US have a sort of special preference for admitting people that are considered "minorities". I would like to know if this is true, and if so, what it entails.

It's sometimes but not always true, and at schools where it is true, the definition of the preferred groups varies. For example, in 1996 Californians passed Proposition 209, which, among other things, requires public schools to have admissions policies that are blind with respect to race, sex, and ethnicity. So, for example, UC Berkeley is not supposed to give preferences for admission to an African-American applicant, but Stanford can (and probably does). It would be up to Stanford to define their preferences.

Many private schools have some admissions policies that, considered by themselves, would tend to exclude disadvantaged students. For example, MIT has need-blind admissions, but RPI isn't need-blind and doesn't have a policy of meeting full demonstrated need. This would tend to reduce access to RPI for students who come from working-class families. Many private schools have a practice called "legacy preferences," which means that they are more likely to admit the children of alumni; for example, George W. Bush would have benefited from such a policy when he applied to Yale. One of the original purposes of legacy preferences was to exclude Jews. Being Asian is probably a disadvantage in college admissions. A 2004 study by Espenshade et al. puts the admissions penalty for Asians at the equivalent of about -50 on a the old 1600-point SAT scale.

At places like California public universities where there is no longer affirmative action, politicians and administrators have invented a number of ways of trying to preserve "diversity." For example, a certain number of spots are reserved for students who rank high in their high school's graduating class, even if the school's academic standards and offerings are weak. Admissions officers are said to look for whether the student has taken the most challenging curriculum offered at their high school, so, e.g., a student at an elite public high school that has an IB program could be at a disadvantage if s/he didn't do IB.

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