School of Education assistant professor awarded Spencer Research Grant

Student writer Andrea Day contributed to this story.

OiYan Poon, Assistant Professor, School of Education

OiYan Poon, an assistant professor at Colorado State University, was recently awarded a Spencer Research Grant of nearly $50,000 to support her outstanding research on how race is addressed in the college admissions process.

Poon teaches in the School of Education’s higher education leadership doctoral specialization. Her research focuses on the racial politics and discourses of college access, higher education organization and policy, affirmative action, and Asian Americans. Poon is considered an expert on the subject of affirmative action and how it relates to the Asian American population.

Improving the future of education

The Spencer Foundation began offering grants in 1971, and has since worked to improve education all over the world by funding grants that impact education today. Poon, awarded the Small Research Grant, competed against roughly 800 other proposals. Scholars must undergo a rigorous review period in which their proposals are reviewed by staff, then sent to outside reviewers, before grants are officially awarded.

“It’s exciting,” Poon said. “Colleges and universities are about education – they’re about teaching and learning. For decades, research has shown that for the best teaching and learning environments you have to have racial diversity. It doesn’t mean that teaching and learning can’t happen without diversity, but it becomes harder and there are missed educational experiences. How selective colleges build racially diverse cohorts is the question of my study.”

The mystery of the admissions “black box”

Poon’s study, “Inside the Black Box”, will try to address the “black box” of race in the college admissions process.

“There’s a metaphor in higher education research known as the ‘black box.’ It describes higher education as something we live and experience, but it is difficult to understand how it actually works. It feels like we’re trying to understand a black box while not having the equipment to understand it,” Poon said. “Admissions, in a lot of ways, is the biggest black box because you can’t know exactly how it happens. Every college and university does it a different way, so how can we truly grasp it?”

Poon plans to interview admissions officers about the procedures and systems they follow to review and select students, especially in regards to how race is included in the process. She aims to interview 50-60 different individuals, recruited from 130 different universities with admissions rates below 40 percent. Participants’ identities will remain anonymous, so the interviewees and their institutions cannot be identified. After the interviews, she plans to see if there are any similarities in the admissions processes that span across the different schools.

“The central question of my research is the question of race in admissions, which has really not been answered,” she said. “There is research about how class is shaping admissions, but nobody has really researched how admissions processes consider race.”

A step forward in admissions research

While Poon searches for similarities in her data, she doesn’t want her research to be used to find a standardized system of admissions.

“I don’t think it needs to be standardized,” she said. “A huge strength of higher education in America is the diversity of institutions. All these thousands of institutions serve different purposes; they have different missions. These differences should be reflected in who they decide to bring into their learning communities.”

The study began Oct. 1. Poon will begin her data collection in 2019, and will analyze her data until she begins her presentations in early 2021. Poon hopes that her research will set up future studies on race in admissions.

“There are questions in the public about implicit bias,” she said. “There are questions regarding the readers of admissions applications, and whether they have an inherent bias against different students and if that’s fair. As a researcher, I think research should be used to answer those questions. Before we get to larger studies on implicit bias in admissions, we have to set up the major study by understanding how admissions works. I’m hoping my smaller study will be a step up to that major research.”

The School of Education is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.