JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

When it's time to apply to college, for many high school kids the process begins by leafing through a university brochure. But as Deena Prichep reports, when it comes to diversity, those glossy images may not paint an accurate picture.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: In 2000, Diallo Shabazz was a student at the University of Wisconsin. And he stopped by the admissions office.

DIALLO SHABAZZ: And one of the admissions counselors walked up to me and said, Diallo, did you see yourself in the admissions booklet? Actually you're on the cover this year.

PRICHEP: Shabazz remembered seeing a cover shot of students at a football game. But he'd never been to a football game.

SHABAZZ: And so I flipped back and that's when I saw my head cut off, and kind of pasted onto the front cover of the admissions booklet.

PRICHEP: This Photoshopped image became a classic example of how colleges miss the mark on diversity. Wisconsin stressed that it was just one person's bad choice. But Shabazz sees it as part of a bigger problem.

SHABAZZ: The admissions department that we've been talking about I believe was on the fourth floor, and multicultural student center was on the second floor of that same building. So you didn't need to create false diversity in a picture. All you really needed to do was go downstairs.

TIM PIPPERT: Diversity is something that's being marketed.

PRICHEP: Tim Pippert is a sociologist at Augsberg College in Minnesota. He says that even without Photoshop colleges try to shape the picture.

PIPPERT: They're trying to sell a campus climate. They're trying to sell a future. Campuses are trying to say: If you come here, you'll have a good time and you'll fit in.

PRICHEP: Pippert and his researchers looked at over 10,000 images from college brochures. They compared the racial breakdown of students in the pictures to the colleges' actual demographics. And they found that, overall, the whiter the school, the more the brochures skewed diversity - especially for certain groups.

PIPPERT: So, for example, when we looked at African-Americans in those schools that were predominantly white, the actual percentage in those campuses was only about 5 percent of the student body. They were photographed at 14.5 percent.

PRICHEP: While that may not sound like a lot, it's an overrepresentation of 188 percent. But where should colleges draw the line? Jim Rawlins directs admissions at the University of Oregon. He's also the past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

JIM RAWLINS: If your campus is 20 percent racially and ethnically diverse, and I were to look at all your photos and you were 30 percent, is 30 unreasonable? Is 30 OK, but 35 would be too far? Is 20 - I mean, where's that number?

PRICHEP: Rawlins says that showing inflated diversity can actually be a step toward creating a more diverse campus. It helps students imagine themselves at those schools. But balancing representation and aspiration is difficult.

RAWLINS: I also wouldn't want to suggest it's something that we all feel we can easily quantify, and start counting faces in pictures and reach our answers to whether we're doing this right or not. I think very much any campus that wants to do this right has to talk with the students they have and see how they're doing.

PRICHEP: We checked in with a group of 12th graders at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, who are awash in college brochures. And none of them had any illusions, like Tobias Kelly.

TOBIAS KELLY: I see these as ads. So I think it's best if you are trying to go to a school to visit it for yourself, so you can really see, 'cause this can fool you sometimes.

PRICHEP: The students all stress that their highest priority is finding a school that will give them the best education. But many, like Brandon Williams, say that diversity is a part of that.

BRANDON WILLIAMS: When you go to college, it's not just about like the classrooms, but it's also about like the stuff you learn from the people.

PRICHEP: And showing who those people are is something colleges continue to navigate. After his Photoshop experience, you'd think Diallo Shabazz would insist colleges stay absolutely true to the numbers. But Shabazz thinks that colleges can paint a picture with an eye toward the future - and they should.

SHABAZZ: I think that universities have a responsibility to portray diversity on campus, you know. And to portray the type of diversity that they would like to create - it shows what their value systems are. At the same time, I think they have a responsibility to be actively engaged in creating that diversity on campus that goes deeper than just what's in the picture.

PRICHEP: And Shabazz hopes that if schools take on that responsibility, the picture may change.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

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