Diallo Shabazz was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 2000 when he stopped by the admissions office.
"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,' " Shabazz says.
The photo was a shot of students at a football game — but Shabazz had never been to a football game.
"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," he says.
This Photoshopped image went viral and 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.
"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," he says. "So you didn't need to create false diversity in the picture — all you really needed to do was go downstairs."
Selling An Image
Even without Photoshop, colleges try to shape the picture they present to prospective students, says Tim Pippert, a sociologist at Augsburg College in Minnesota.
"Diversity is something that's being marketed," Pippert says. "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.' "
Pippert and his researchers looked at more than 10,000 images from college brochures, comparing the racial breakdown of students in the pictures to the colleges' actual demographics. They found that, overall, the whiter the school, the more diversity depicted in the brochures, especially for certain groups.
"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," he says. "They were photographed at 14.5 percent."
A Picture Of What Diversity Could Look Like
Just where should colleges draw the line? There's no clear answer, says Jim Rawlins, admissions director at the University of Oregon and past president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
"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?" Rawlins says. "Is 30 OK, but 35 would be too far? I mean, where's that number?"
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.
"I also wouldn't want to suggest it's something we all feel we can easily quantify, and start counting faces in pictures and reach our answer as to whether we're doing this right or not," he says. "I think very much any campus that wants to do this right has to talk to the students they have, and see how they're doing."
The Students' View
NPR checked in with a group of 12th graders at Jefferson High School in Portland, Ore., who are awash in college brochures. None of them had any illusions.
"I think it's best, if you are trying to go to a school, to visit it for yourself, so you can really see," senior Tobias Kelly says. "Because this can fool you sometimes."
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 the package.
"When you go to college, it's not just about the classroom, but it's also about the stuff you learn from the people," he says.
Even after his Photoshop experience, Shabazz thinks colleges can and should paint a picture of their student population with an eye toward the future.
"I think that universities have a responsibility to portray diversity on campus, and to portray the type of diversity that they would like to create," he says. "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."