What’s all the fuss about affirmative action in U.S. college admissions?

In the United States, college admissions have long been a topic of debate and discussion. One aspect that has drawn significant attention is affirmative action. The policy aims to promote diversity and equal opportunities among students.

Recently, the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard has altered college admissions in the U.S. permanently. In a landmark decision to repeal affirmative action, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it illegal to consider race as a specific basis for granting admission.

In this EDU Blog, we dig into the history of affirmative action (AA), and explore its significance in education. Read on as we discuss recent developments surrounding the policy.

As a college admissions policy, affirmative action or positive action is a strategy used to address historical and ongoing disparities. It seeks to promote inclusivity by considering factors like race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background alongside academic qualifications during the selection process.

AA policies differ from region to region and range from quotas to merely encouraging participation. Some countries use a quota system, reserving a certain percentage of government jobs, political positions, and school vacancies for members of a certain group; for example, India.

Other jurisdictions, like the United States, give preference to minority-group members without quotas.

Is affirmative action legal?

Legal arguments regarding AA continue to be debated.

For instance, in the United Kingdom, hiring someone just because of their protected group status is illegal. Yet, UK law allows consideration of underrepresented and disadvantaged group membership in hiring and promotion, if candidates are equally qualified.

The policy has also withstood legal challenges in the U.S., with opponents arguing it is  a form of reverse discrimination. Yet, the United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action many times, provided it is used as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process. This changed in a landmark decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, June 2023.

Let’s imagine a scenario where you and your friends are organizing a party. You want to invite a diverse group of people, so you ask everyone to fill out an application. However, after receiving the applications, you notice that some of your friends are not inviting many Asian-American students, even though their applications were strong. This is what the group, Students for Fair Admissions argued was happening at Harvard. 

Now, Harvard argued that they have a holistic admissions process, which means they consider many different factors when deciding who to admit. They said that they looked at more than grades and test scores, but also at extracurricular activities, personal essays, and interviews. They claimed that by doing so, they were creating a well-rounded and diverse student body.

To support their argument, Harvard presented statistics showing that Asian-American students had higher average test scores and grades than other racial groups. However, they also mentioned that they received many applications from Asian-American students, so they needed to consider other factors to make their final decisions.

One verifiable fact is that during the trial, Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower on subjective traits like personality, likability, and courage. This was seen as a point of contention since these ratings could potentially influence admissions decisions.

In the end, the court ruled in favor of Harvard. It stated that while there were some flaws in the admissions process, it did not show intentional discrimination against Asian-American applicants.

How does affirmative action work?

In the context of college admissions, affirmative action policies aim to increase representation from historically underrepresented groups.

Admissions officers may consider an applicant’s race or ethnicity, but it is critical to note that AA is not based only on these factors. Institutions use a blanket approach, especially in international student recruitment. Considerations include academic achievements, extracurricular activities, personal essays, and recommendations.

Why is affirmative action important? 

Affirmative action is crucial in addressing systemic inequalities and fostering diversity in educational settings. By considering applicants from different backgrounds, colleges and universities can create a vibrant learning environment that reflects our diverse society.

Diversity in educational environments can also enhance critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills while preparing students for the complexities of globalization.

History of affirmative action in U.S. Colleges

Affirmative action in college admissions traces back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Affirmative action was first introduced into the United States in “Executive Order No. 10925,” signed by President John F. Kennedy on 6 March 1961. Among other provisions, it stated that government contractors would take affirmative measures to ensure that applicants were hired, and employees were treated [fairly] during employment, regardless of their race, creed, color, or national origin.

The policy soon became popular as a means to promote non-discriminatory actions across sectors in the country.

Recent developments in affirmative action in U.S. colleges

There have been a lot of challenges with affirmative action policies in U.S. college admissions in the past two decades. Critics of affirmative action raise compelling arguments. They argue that it mainly benefits privileged minority members at the expense of less fortunate majority members.

Eight states currently ban race-based affirmative action at all public universities— Florida, California, Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, others have set up alternative approaches, like class-based affirmative action. These developments have sparked discussions about the best approaches to achieve diversity and equal opportunities in higher education.

AA was never a complete answer...

As the debate around affirmative action continues, educators must consider the broader societal impact of the policy. While critics argue that it is a form of reverse discrimination, supporters emphasize its potential to level the playing field and create a more inclusive educational system.

Following the landmark Supreme Court ruling, the Obamas, who are Ivy League alumni, called on all Americans to join the efforts to redress all forms of discrimination against minorities. Now is the time for us all to recognize young people’s potential and provide them with the opportunities they deserve.  Closing off in the words of Barack Obama: “Affirmative action was never a complete answer in the drive towards a more just society.”

Understanding the history and recent developments surrounding affirmative action allows us to have informed discussions about its importance and potential future directions. Want more breaking news in the education industry? Sign up to the newsletter and stay connected to the EDU Passport community.

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