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What is Affirmative Action? How Does it Impact College Admissions?

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“Affirmative” and “action” are two relatively benign words, until you put them together. Affirmative action has been one of the most polarizing topics in the U.S. for over 50 years, and remains so today. In light of the recent lawsuits brought against Harvard University, one could even argue that affirmative action is becoming more contentious as the years go on. 


If you’re wondering what exactly affirmative action is, and how it impacts college admissions, here’s what you need to know.


What is Affirmative Action? 


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 prefererence is given to underrepresented or previously discriminated-against parts of society. 


What does this mean when it comes to college admissions? This means that students from historically underrepresented backgrounds may be 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. This was the issue brought to the foreground in the lawsuit against Harvard University by Students for Fair Admissions, which was representing Asian-Americans who claimed that affirmative action made it harder for them to get in.


The Paradox of Affirmative Action 


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 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 wasn’t “perfect,” it was necessary to ensure diversity.


Today: Affirmative action is alive and well across the U.S. today; however, there are currently nine states—Idaho, California, Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma—that have banned affirmative action by either ballot initiatives or legislative referendums. (Remember that Texas had previously banned affirmative action, but began re-implementing race-conscious admissions after Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003).

Affirmative Action and College Admissions


In general, affirmative action plays an insignificant role in the admissions decisions at most colleges and universities. A 2014 study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that only 3.4% of colleges reported race/ethnicity having a “considerable influence” on decisions, and another 11.1% saying it had a “moderate” influence. 


This is not to diminish the role of affirmative action in admissions, as it still plays a part in admissions decisions at the nation’s top-tier educational institutions, which are traditionally thought of as gateways to influential careers in industry, education, and government. This is why schools such as the University of Michigan, the University of Texas, and Harvard University have been the subject of litigation. 


Because there are nine states where affirmative action has been banned, it’s possible to draw some conclusion about the impact of the program. For example, after California banned the consideration of race in admissions decisions, minority admissions at the state’s top universities dropped dramatically—falling between 50-60%. At UC Berkeley, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students in its freshman class fell from 22% to 12%. 

In 2015, the website fivethiryeight.com used U.S. Census data and came up with some startling results, finding Black students underrepresented by at least 20% at 79% of the research universities. Only two research universities in states that have banned affirmative action have the same proportion of Black students as the state’s college-age population, and one of them is Florida A&M University, a historically Black college or university (HBCU). Hispanic students fare equally poorly, being underrepresented by at least 20% at 82% of the public research universities, with one one college (Florida International University) having the same proportion of Hispanic students as the state’s college-age population. 


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 creates rich and diverse college campuses where students are 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 is a way to level the playing field for traditionally underrepresented applicants. It also helps 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. In a similar vein, affirmative action allows students to pursue a career that 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 gives 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 seeks to eliminate inequality by enabling positive discrimination. 
  • Doesn’t Account for Income: One criticism of affirmative action is that it doesn’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 gets into a highly-rated college where affirmative action is practiced, it can lead others to view their achievements, skills, and talents as “less than” those in majority groups.
  • Reinforces Stereotypes: Because affirmative action assists underrepresented groups, it can 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.


No matter your feelings about affirmative action, it does impact college admissions. Because of this, our free chancing calculator takes into account demographic information, along with standard factors like GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activities to give you as accurate admissions insights as possible. Create your CollegeVine account today to start using this powerful tool—for free!

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.