SALT LAKE CITY — As several high-profile court cases reignite the debate over affirmative action, a new study has found that the vast majority of Americans say the college admissions process should be race-blind.
A Pew Research Center survey released Feb. 25 found that 73 percent of Americans say race should not be considered in college admissions decisions, while 19 percent say it should be a minor factor and 7 percent say it should be a major factor.
Nikki Graf, a research associate at Pew, said this was particularly true of white adults, 78 percent of whom don’t think race and ethnicity should be taken into account in college admissions decisions, compared to 65 percent of Hispanics, 62 percent of African-Americans, and 59 percent of Asians.
The survey comes at a time when affirmative action policies are under increased scrutiny. In July 2018, the Trump administration announced its intention to reverse an Obama-era policy that directed universities to consider race during admissions decisions, instead encouraging them to implement “race-blind” admissions standards.
At the same time, two anti-affirmative action lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are wending their way through federal courts. Led by anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admission and conservative activist Edward Blum, the suits argue that both universities have been admitting less-qualified black and Hispanic applicants at the expense of white and Asian applicants. One of the cases, if not both, is expected to eventually come before the Supreme Court.
How the cases are decided could alter universities’ affirmative action policies going forward. If the Harvard case is successful, it “could end affirmative action in higher education as we know it,” argues Hua Hsu in the New Yorker.
But what is affirmative action in higher education as we know it? And how does it contribute to the purpose of education as Americans understand it?
“Over the last 100 years, college has become increasingly important, and in the last 40 to 50 years a college degree has become what a high school degree once was," said Brian Leiter, professor of jurisprudence and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago, adding that a college degree is essential for employment opportunities and social mobility.
“That’s changed the social significance of college quite a bit. And that’s at least partly why who gets into college is of such great interest,” he said.
Roots of affirmative action
Although the term “affirmative action” often surfaces today in conversations about college admissions, it originally referred to a larger set of policies that aimed to integrate African-Americans and whites in the workplace in the wake of the civil rights movement.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy signed an executive order requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action” in their hiring processes in order to uphold racial “nondiscrimination,” Hsu writes. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and prohibited colleges from discriminating against applicants on the basis of race or gender.
As a result, universities began to implement affirmative action policies in admissions decisions, Leiter said. Although the nature of these policies has changed over time, Harvard’s “holistic” admissions policy, which considers the applicant’s race as one of many factors, has been held up by the Supreme Court as a model for other universities.
The purpose of affirmative action laws — in both the workplace and higher education — was to “compensate people who were victims of discrimination and try to integrate professions by making sure people previously excluded were included,” Leiter said.
This rationale changed after the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the first to consider the legal limitations of affirmative action in higher education.
Allen Bakke, a white man twice rejected from the University of California, Davis medical school, argued that he was the victim of “reverse discrimination” and would have been accepted had he belonged to a minority group. At the time, UC Davis reserved 16 of 100 spots in each class for “qualified” minorities. Bakke’s college GPA and test scores were higher than those of any of the minority applicants accepted the two years he applied.
The court ruled both for and against affirmative action, striking down Davis’ “rigid” quota-based policy while also holding that it was constitutional for race to be a factor in college admissions decisions. Justice Lewis Powell wrote the plurality opinion, arguing that discriminating between applicants on the basis of race was “suspect,” but that “the diversity of the student body was a compelling reason to consider race in admissions,” Leiter said.
This decision enshrined diversity as a foundational value of the modern college campus. Affirmative action, which had once been mainly concerned with righting wrongs against African-Americans who had previously been denied access to higher education, was now about promoting diversity so that students of all backgrounds could learn from each other and be exposed to different viewpoints and perspectives, said Leiter.
The Supreme Court reiterated this interpretation of affirmative action in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger. “Student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify a narrowly tailored use of race in admission,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion. She added that diversity has numerous “educational benefits” because it “promotes learning and better prepares students for an increasingly heterogeneous workforce” and for “responsible citizenship.”
Purpose of higher education
These court decisions have sparked larger debates regarding the purpose of higher education — and whether affirmative action contributes to that purpose.
Republicans and Democrats disagree on the central purpose of college. According to a 2017 Pew survey, 58 percent of Republican adults said the main purpose should be the attainment of specific skills and knowledge for the workplace, while Democrats were more divided: 43 percent agreed with Republicans, while 42 percent said the main purpose of college should be personal growth.
Those who feel the purpose of higher education should be to prepare students for the workforce may view affirmative action as undermining that goal.
Wall Street Journal columnist Heather Mac Donald has argued that affirmative action gives preferential treatment to minorities who may be less qualified for admission than their peers and who are unprepared for the rigors of a prestigious university, which in turn makes them less likely to succeed in the workforce.
"'Diversity' in the academy is purported to be about bridge-building and broadening people's experiences. It has had the opposite effect: dividing society, reducing learning and creating an oppositional mind-set that prevents individuals from seizing the opportunities available to them," Mac Donald writes in her 2018 book, “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.”
On the other hand, a sense that the purpose of higher education is to foster personal growth may contribute to support for affirmative action as a tool to broaden students' horizons.
"Diversifying the classroom and the school experience is an educational imperative," said Maya Wiley, a professor and senior vice president for social justice at New York's The New School. "It's critically important for our national security, our social cohesion, our critical thinking skills, that our classrooms look like our country and the world. That's an educational benefit to everyone."
"Whenever we think about the problems we want our college graduates to solve, they require the different experiences we have based on how we're positioned differently in society" due to race, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, Wiley added.
Others, like Leiter, argue that intellectual diversity is more important than demographic diversity, while acknowledging that sometimes the two overlap.
"Intellectual diversity is important for education because having a diversity of viewpoints and arguments helps you think more clearly about what's true and if you have good reason to believe what you believe," Leiter said.
Americans have also debated whether it is more important to accept and educate the best students or to provide opportunities to historically disadvantaged populations.
The 2019 Pew survey indicated that most Americans think colleges should accept applicants based on their academic merit.
Sixty-seven percent of Americans said high school grades should be a major factor in college admissions decisions, and 47 percent said the same for standardized test scores. On the other hand, majorities said other qualities — such as being a first-generation college student, athletic ability or being a legacy student, as well as one's race or gender — shouldn’t be factors in college admissions decisions.
However, Leiter said, “The unpleasant truth is that universities have never just rewarded academic merit. Universities want a certain level of achievement that shows students are likely to succeed, but when they admit athletes, they’re not rewarding academic merit. When they admit children of alumni, they’re definitely not rewarding merit — they’re trying to generate donations.”
“Affirmative action is only a small part of the picture, but it’s gotten the most legal attention,” Leiter added.
A turning point?
The Harvard and UNC lawsuits have brought affirmative action back to the forefront of legal debate.
Students for Fair Admissions’ case against Harvard alleges that the university has effectively instituted a quota on the number of Asian-Americans it admits, often by giving them lower scores in the “personal rating” category, in order to achieve a certain racial composition for each incoming class. The case is unique because it “argues that a minority group has been unfairly penalized in favor of both whites and other minority groups,” according to The New York Times.
The UNC case is more similar to past anti-affirmative action lawsuits, alleging that the university has given preference to black and Hispanic students who are less qualified than other white and Asian applicants.
Leiter predicts that if the Harvard case ends up before the Supreme Court, “The current court is going to hold that race-based action is completely unconstitutional and that diversity is no longer a compelling reason to take the race of applicants into account.”
He added that the court is likely to “seize on” language from O’Connor’s majority opinion in the 2003 Grutter case, in which she wrote, “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
In other words, O'Connor anticipated that by 2028, diversity would no longer be considered a compelling reason to justify race-based college admissions.
What Americans really think
The recent Pew findings that Americans don't support the use of race in college admissions may not tell the whole story, experts say.
One interpretation of the survey is that most Americans don’t support affirmative action. But the survey wasn’t specifically asking for Americans’ stances on affirmative action, but rather for their opinion on the factors that should be taken into consideration during the college admissions process, Graf said.
Wiley said she found the survey results “interesting” given that Pew released a survey in 2014 that found that 63 percent of Americans supported affirmative action. In a 2017 survey, that number rose to 71 percent.
“Sometimes it’s how you ask the question and what people know or what they’re thinking about at the time that influence how they answer the question,” Wiley said.
Pew’s 2014 survey asked Americans, “In general, do you think affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campus are a good thing or a bad thing?” In contrast, one of the the 2019 survey questions asked, “Do you think race and ethnicity should be a factor in college admissions?”
A Gallup analysis found a similar pattern. There are several potential explanations for this seeming contradiction, according to Gallup senior scientist Frank Newport.
“It could be that affirmative action connotes to Americans an outreach that encourages more individuals with certain racial and ethnic characteristics to apply (something Harvard does). It could be that affirmative action connotes efforts to increase the high school preparation for individuals with certain racial and ethnic characteristics to put them in a more competitive position for admissions decisions.”
“Or,” he continued, “respondents could favor the idea simply because they applaud the result — more diversity in a student body — without thinking much about how that result is brought about.”
The 2019 Pew survey also found that 85 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats thought race or ethnicity shouldn’t be a factor in college admissions decisions.
“Majorities of Republicans and Democrats said that race shouldn’t factor in college admissions, but Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say that,” Graf said.
However, in the 2017 survey, 52 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats said they thought affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campus were a good thing.
People may support affirmative action in the abstract, but no one wants to feel “like they’re being denied valuable opportunities because of their race,” Leiter said. “Why do you think so many white and Asian-American groups are bringing these lawsuits?”
“Because college admissions are so closely connected to career opportunities, people who are excluded will be upset, and people who benefit will be happy,” Leiter said.