A Bit of Nuance: Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Updated: Mar 17

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Affirmative action is one of the most controversial topics in our nation. With many of the most selective and high-profile universities facing backlash from the Department of Justice for discriminatory aspects to their admissions process, the topic has been at the center of the international spotlight. On the one hand, affirmative action levels the playing field and increases the universities’ diversity in the United States. On the other hand, race-based conscious admissions have been accused of discriminating against Asian Americans and whites which leads to potential classroom challenges.


Opinion: Affirmative Action Should Be Employed in College Admissions Samir Chowdhury

Opinion: Race-Based Affirmative Action Should Not Be Employed in College Admissions Achraf Azzaoui

On History: For years, affirmative action has been an extremely controversial nuance to college admissions in the U.S. Initially developed in the 1960s to combat racial inequality and exclusion in American society, affirmative action was a solution that many universities implemented to be seen as progressive on race. When the idea was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1970s, Justice Powell justified its utilization by its contribution to diversifying the student body. However, affirmative action does far more than just diversifying the classroom. It has historically served as an impetus for social mobility and diverse leadership throughout the U.S. According to the 17th President of Princeton University, William Bowen, and former President of Harvard University, Derek Bok’s book, The Shape of the River, affirmative action has greatly benefitted minority groups, specifically Blacks. The book, which analyzes the impact of affirmative action by scrutinizing decades of data from a group of selective colleges, finds that “Black students who probably benefited from affirmative action […] do better in the long run than their peers who went to lower-status university and probably did not benefit from affirmative action.” Furthermore, the book affirms that Black beneficiaries of affirmative action are also more likely to graduate college, earn professional degrees, and have higher incomes than Blacks who did not benefit. Thus, affirmative action is an already proven method that has aided minority groups. In a country where minority groups are often at a disadvantage due to decreased opportunities and increased social difficulties, affirmative action serves as an effective tool to level the playing field. It should be continuously employed in college admissions.

On History: Affirmative action in higher education was initially developed to help close gaps in opportunity between different racial groups. However, since its conception, it has been the subject of constant litigation and controversy, due to Title VI explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. Affirmative action hasn’t delivered measurable outcomes for marginalized groups either; African-Americans are currently even less represented at top colleges than they were over 35 years ago. Besides, admitting underprepared students to selective institutions makes them less likely to pursue higher-paying majors in the natural sciences, when they otherwise would have chosen a better fit school. This has led to more contempt between different racial groups and minorities internalizing negative stereotypes, which, in turn, has resulted in lower academic performance. Users of online social media platforms can attest to seeing minority students’ achievements being discredited by bigoted individuals who chalk up their successes to race preferences caused by affirmative action policies. Policies like affirmative action do little to consider the divisive social climate and what psychological effects these attacks on merit on people of color can have.

On Affirmative Action Lawsuits: Currently, investigations are being conducted into race-conscious admissions at several universities fueled by the notion of affirmative action. The United States Department of Justice recently found Yale University’s admissions process from 2000 to 2017 to be discriminatory against white applicants. The Justice Department has also been conducting similar investigations into Harvard’s admissions process as of December 2019. While these investigations do allege a disparity between Blacks and other races regarding the likelihood of their acceptance, this disparity is purposely in place to level the already unequal playing field. With racism against Blacks rooted in American history, growing up Black in the U.S. fosters extremelife difficulties. Blacks are disproportionately affected by nearly all issues in comparison to whites. These issues include poverty, public health risks, general traumatic experiences, and other factors that make it harder to live and achieve the competitive standards needed for admission to selective colleges. For example, in the U.S., Blacks have the highest poverty rates (27.4%). On the other hand, white peoples’ poverty rate is nearly three times lower (9.9%). In regards to public health risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black people are 4.7 times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 and 2.1 times more likely to be killed when compared to white people. Furthermore, the Economic Policy Institute found that “Black children are more likely than white children to be exposed to frightening or threatening experiences.” Thus, with all of these evidence-based disparities impacting Black students’ lives, any acceptance differences found by the Department of Justice are purposely in place to cater to the severe challenges Black students endure.

On Affirmative Action Lawsuits: Recently, a number of high profile class-action lawsuits have been filed against prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Yale, over alleged violations of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In the Harvard case, federal judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in favor of the university, failing to confirm the alleged presence of intentional discrimination against Asian-Americans. In contrast, the Department of Justice found Yale’s admissions process unfairly biased against white and Asian-American applicants. This decision is substantiated by the enormous disparity in likelihood for admission between different races; Asian-Americans and white Americans have only one-tenth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials. The bias against Asian-Americans assumes them as a homogeneously privileged group, which isn’t the case. According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, Asian-Americans have the highest income inequality of any racial group. The vast disparities can be explained by differences in English-language proficiency as well as education. Immigration reform in 1965 paved the way for Asian-Americans; however, preference was given to highly skilled and educated individuals. The phenomenon of Brain Drain (the migration of skilled human resources for trade and education purposes to developed countries) affected individual nations such as India more than others. Consequently, those descendants have been able to accumulate generational wealth, compared to descendants of southeast nations like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos whose roots in the U.S. stem from refugee status rather than education. This difference in reason for immigration is embodied in income and generational wealth accumulation. All three aforementioned ethnic groups who’s origin in the U.S. stem from refugee status have a median household income less than half of that of Indian-Americans. It is evident that it is unjust to disadvantage these ethnic groups for being classified as Asain due to the inequality of opportunity between them.

On the Future of College Admissions: Due to historical precedents that indicate high efficacy of affirmative action and its ability to level the playing field for all students applying to college, colleges should continue implementing it in their admissions processes. Beyond the purpose of diversifying the college classroom and leveling the playing field for minority groups, affirmative action yields more benefits in the classroom that are often overlooked. The aforementioned book, The Shape of the River, also investigates the effects of affirmative action on whites and students from a higher economic background. The decades of research in the book demonstrate that the university’s classmates and attendees are also “direct beneficiaries.” As a result of affirmative action increasing racial minorities’ presence, classmates indicate improved racial attitudes towards racial minorities. These students also report greater cognitive capacities and seem to participate more civically when leaving college. Evidence gathered by the Century Foundation — a “progressive, nonpartisan think tank that seeks to foster opportunity, reduce inequality, and promote security at home and abroad” — demonstrates that racially integrated classrooms can improve students’ satisfaction, enhance self-confidence, and bolster leadership skills. These benefits that occur may translate to greater economic outcomes and prepare students to work in a diverse global economy, which increases the overall productivity, effectiveness, and creativity of professionals in the future. In addition to providing Blacks better opportunities and benefiting classmates by helping them develop soft skills, affirmative action greatly spurs white women into college. Acceptance rates for white women benefit greatly from affirmative action. According to the Center for American Progress, after affirmative action was implemented in the 1960s, female college enrollment increased from a mere 19% to 44% over the next 50 years. Moreover, the number of white women between ages 25 to 33 with college degrees increased from less than 15% to over 40%. Affirmative action should continue to be implemented in the college admissions process as it equalizes admission for minority groups, increases integration for females into the college environment, and boosts students’ soft skills that will brighten the U.S.’ future.

On the Future of College Admissions: There’s no denying the nuanced experiences of people of color in the education system based on their race. However, most of these phenomenons, such as disproportionate school funding through property taxes, are rooted in institutional racism’s effects of income inequality. Therefore, it would be more logically sound to implement a class-based affirmative action system, which 61% of Americans approve of, compared to just 36% who are in favor of race playing a role in the admissions process. Racial preferences in the admissions process currently do not tackle low socio-economic diversity; 71% of Black and Latino students admitted to Harvard come from wealthy backgrounds. This is especially concerning because being economically disadvantaged in America is seven times as impactful as race in education. Class-based affirmative action works to reduce inequity of opportunity in education more effectively than its’ race-based counterpart. Still, it isn’t sufficient on its own, and other measures must be implemented in conjunction with it. In addition to it, universities should either significantly reduce the impact of standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT in the admissions process, or disregard it altogether. Both standardized tests were found to be unreliable in predicting future college success. Studies found individual ACT scores to be very inconsistent college readiness measures, while the SAT was found to under or over-predict hundreds of thousands of first-year college grades. In contrast, a high school GPA was discovered to be a five times greater determinant of college success than the ACT or SAT. This data falls in line with a current practice implemented in Texas called the “Top Ten Percent Law,” which guaranteed students in the top 10% of their high school class admission to all state-funded universities. The guaranteed admissions policy was found to decrease low-income student undermatching and immediately increase diversity in the top UT schools, and should be implemented in other states as an additional alternative to race-based affirmative action.