What is Affirmative Action? How Does it Impact College Admissions?
- What Does Affirmative Action Mean?
- The Paradox of Affirmative Action
- History of Affirmative Action in Education and College Admissions
- Affirmative Action and College Admissions
- Why is Affirmative Action Controversial? Pros and Cons of the Policy
Affirmative action has been a polarizing policy in college admissions for over 50 years in the United States. In 2023, this policy was declared unconstitutional and no longer allowed to be applied to admissions decisions. This is a large change that impacts many students, particularly students of color. It has implications for their chances of college acceptance, financial aid, and the amount of direct outreach they will receive from schools.
If you’re wondering what affirmative action was, how it impacted college admissions, and what will change now that it has been struck down, here’s what you need to know.
What Does Affirmative Action Mean?
At its most basic, affirmative action is a policy in which an individual’s color, race, sex, religion, or national origin are taken into account in a selection process (often college admissions or employment), and preference is given to underrepresented or previously discriminated-against members of society.
What did this mean when it came to college admissions? Students from historically underrepresented backgrounds may have been admitted despite having grades and test scores that aren’t as strong as those of students from other groups. Likewise, students from overrepresented groups may need to meet higher academic standards to gain acceptance.
The Paradox of Affirmative Action
The idea of affirmative action is to improve professional or educational opportunities for individuals who belong to minority groups. It sought to improve the effects of discrimination in admissions and hiring for women and people of color by instituting policies giving limited preference to people of those groups. It was first instituted by the Johnson administration in the 1960s to improve opportunities for minorities while the government was attempting to improve civil rights. The hope was that affirmative action policies would provide an incentive for businesses and colleges to hire and admit more minority employees and students, thereby creating a more diverse environment and lessening discrimination.
The root of the issue of affirmative action is that it’s a paradox. In an attempt to bring more equality and equal opportunity to underrepresented groups, affirmative action treats those groups differently, which isn’t technically “equal.”
In an article entitled, “The Changing Meaning of Affirmative Action,” The New Yorker points out: “Once we amended the Constitution and passed laws to protect people of color from being treated differently in ways that were harmful to them, the government had trouble enacting programs that treat people of color differently in ways that might be beneficial. We took race out of the equation only to realize that, if we truly wanted not just equality of opportunity for all Americans but equality of result, we needed to put it back in.”
History of Affirmative Action in Education and College Admissions
1978: In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that using race as one factor (among others) in admissions was permissible, but quotas for underrepresented minority groups were not.
1995: The Regents of the University of California voted to terminate all types of affirmative action (race-, gender-, ethnicity-, and national origin-based) at all University of California schools, to be implemented over the next 3 years.
1996-1997: In Texas v. Hopwood, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the University of Texas admissions system, which considered race, was unconstitutional. In response to this ruling, the Top 10% Plan was developed to guarantee acceptance at all Texas public colleges for any Texas high schoolers in the top 10% of their graduating class.
2003: In Grutter v. Bollinger, Barbara Grutter sued the University of Michigan Law School, as she believed she’d been rejected on the basis of her race (white). The court ruled that race-based admissions was permissible, but stated that they expected affirmative action to no longer be necessary in 25 years. On the same day, they heard Gratz v. Bollinger, which struck down the University of Michigan’s point-based admissions system, as it gave automatic points to underrepresented minorities. It was essentially leading to quotas, and did not encourage a case-by-case review of applicants.
2016: In Fisher v. University of Texas, UT’s race-conscious admissions system was deemed constitutional. The UT system had previously ended affirmative action, but reinstated it after the Grutter v. Bollinger decision.
2014: In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court upheld the state of Michigan’s constitutional amendment that prohibited universities from having race-conscious admissions.
2019: The Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) accused Harvard of discriminating against Asians in its race-based admissions. The Federal District Court Judge ruled in Harvard’s favor, saying “the Court [found] no persuasive documentary evidence of any…conscious prejudice against Asian Americans,” and that while race-based admissions at Harvard weren’t “perfect,” it was necessary to ensure diversity.
2022: The US Supreme Court heard two cases filed by SFFA alleging the race-conscious admissions practices at Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill were unconstitutional. They believed that Asian Americans were being unfairly discriminated against in the admissions process and that this violated the 14th Amendment and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
2023: The Supreme Court decided that the use of race in college admissions was unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, noting that “the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual- not on the basis of race.” He further wrote in his opinion that “[Universities] have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin.” As a result, colleges and universities can no longer practice race-conscious admissions.
Affirmative Action and College Admissions
The end of affirmative action changes some aspects of college admissions, particularly for students of color. Three main changes that can be expected include:
- Some students of color will see their acceptance chances drop. This is because colleges used to be able to take race into account, using historic achievement gaps to boost applicants with lower overall admissions profiles. Colleges and universities are no longer allowed to do this.
- Students of color will see less direct outreach from colleges. Many schools will likely stop considering race in recruitment as to avoid legal challenges. This, coupled with the College Board going digital, will lead to lower communications from colleges for many students across the board.
- There will be an increase in “undermatching” due to financial challenges. Since the most selective private colleges offer the most generous financial aid and they will likely see a drop in enrollment among underrepresented students, many students who would have been accepted in previous cycles will be forced to turn to less-selective schools that they may not be able to afford as easily. So, those students will turn to cheaper schools where their profile is especially strong, known as “undermatching.”
Why is Affirmative Action Controversial? Pros and Cons of the Policy
When debating the pros and cons of affirmative action, it seems that there is a negative for every positive, which is one of the primary reasons the topic is so contentious. One way to think of affirmative action is as an imperfect solution to a problem of an imperfect world.
Pros of Affirmative Action in College Admissions
- Diversity: It created rich and diverse college campuses where students were exposed to different cultures, ideas, and ways of thinking.
- Levels the Playing Field: As the public becomes more aware of the role legacy plays in admissions at the nation’s most sought-after universities (Harvard’s Class of 2022 is made up of over 36% legacy students), affirmative action was a way to level the playing field for traditionally underrepresented applicants. It also helped account for the lack of opportunities these underrepresented groups may have faced, which may have led to lower grades and test scores.
- Increases Economic Mobility: A college degree is a proven way to improve economic mobility—according to the Brookings article, “Does College Improve Social Mobility?,” children born in the lowest income bracket are four times as likely to remain there (47%) as those who earn a four-year college degree (10%). When underrepresented minority groups have greater access to education, they’re more likely to be able to improve their economic situation. Similarly, affirmative action allowed students to pursue a career they might have otherwise found out of reach because of educational requirements. During their time in college, they may also be exposed to careers they may have never considered.
- Dispels Stereotypes: When students are around others from diverse ethnic and racial groups, it may allow them to re-evaluate any preconceptions they have of these groups, especially if they may have never had close contact with them.
- Accounts for Societal Loss: Many minorities have been historically disadvantaged and unable to build wealth as other groups have, due to systemic inequalities and discrimination. Affirmative action gave them the chance to make societal gains through their education.
Cons of Affirmative Action in College Admissions
- Reverse Discrimination: The paradox of affirmative action is that it sought to eliminate inequality by enabling positive discrimination.
- Didn’t Account for Income: One criticism of affirmative action is that it didn’t account for income—Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, found that 71% of Harvard’s Black and Latino students come from wealthy backgrounds.
- May Make Personal Achievements Seem Less Meaningful: If someone got into a highly-rated college where affirmative action was practiced, it could lead others to view their achievements, skills, and talents as “less than” those in majority groups.
- Reinforces Stereotypes: Because affirmative action assisted underrepresented groups, it could lead people to believe these groups require assistance to succeed.
- Diversity is Complicated: Simply having students from different groups on campus does not automatically create a diverse culture—does the Black student from the top 1% who attended private high school have more in common with students in the majority at a top school like Harvard or Stanford or with a Black student from a low-income family? As of 2013, only 4.5% of Harvard students and 4% of Stanford students came from the bottom income bracket.
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