SIPA's Commencement 2016 at Columbia University

Everyone benefits from diversity on campus – why the problem with affirmative action?

This week, affirmative action has been making the headlines in the United States. First introduced by President Kennedy in 1961, the policy was designed to ensure non-discrimination in university enrollment. Although originally some universities used strict quotas to admit a set percentage of minority students to the university, a 1978 US Supreme Court cased ruled that practice unconstitutional. Since that time, affirmative action in admission policy entails using race as one of multiple factors, such as exam scores, socio-economic status, and extra-curricular activities, in making admission decisions. A few days ago, under directive from President Trump, the Department of Justice took a step toward challenging affirmative action by rescinding all guidance to universities on how to legally implement the policy. President Trump has said that the policies “advocate policy preferences and positions beyond the requirements of the Constitution.”

This decision comes on the back of many legal battles over the policy, won by those championing affirmative action. Only a few years ago, the Supreme Court upheld a case on affirmative action in relation to the University of Texas’s admission policy. In this case, the University of Texas identified three compelling interests for increasing diversity through its policy: “the destruction of stereotypes”, promoting “cross-cultural understanding”, and preparing students “for an increasingly diverse work force and society”. In 2003, the University of Michigan won another major Supreme Court, allowing race to be used as one factor in admissions decisions.


Another high profile case, dating back to 2015 and still ongoing, involves complaints filed by a group of Asian-Americans against Harvard University for using race as a criteria in its admissions policy.

The critics of affirmative action are perhaps summed up in the line issued this week by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, when she said ‘Schools should continue to offer equal opportunities for all students while abiding by the law.’ In her mind, the policy is easier to read as being reverse discrimination. Indeed the Justice Department labelled it as intentional race-based discrimination when they began to sue universities over the policy under the new President.

But this line doesn’t quite stack up.

Taking the ongoing Harvard case, for example, the arguments on the other side of the fence seem pretty indisputable. For instance, against some people’s belief that the policy only affects a few, and isn’t making much of a difference, evidence shows that Asian students have greatly benefited from Affirmative Action since 1978. For those that think it might be an unpopular policy, and therefore worth scrapping, survey results show that 60% in 2003 considered affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority on college campus a good thing. In 2017, this number raised to 71%.

The argument that the same set of students would benefit if race was removed from the admissions equation is also countered by evidence showing that income-based approaches don’t yield equal results when it comes to increasing the number of blacks and Hispanics on campus, and don’t see the same school wide benefits of diversity either.

Furthermore, evidence beautifully displaced in the New York Times, shows that even with affirmative action, blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented at top colleges than 35 years ago. The fact is that this policy is needed because the disadvantages blacks and Hispanics face are real.

Affirmative action has also been proven to work in helping these students overcome their disadvantage: There have been declines in the number of minority students enrolling in States that have banned the inclusion of race as a factor in admissions, with a drop in minority enrollment of 23 percentage points between those including it as a factor, and states that have banned the policy. These same states have also seen fewer underrepresented minorities graduating. Similarly, evidence has shown that minorities admitted have improved graduation rates, and later earnings as well, suggesting that affirmative action policies are able to tap into student potential.

The benefits for equity in adopting affirmative action are recognized in other countries too. Country policies differ by targeted disadvantage group and whether a quota or multi-factor approach is taken in admissions. For example, Sweden pays special attention to gender, India to caste, and Sri Lanka to district of origin. In Brazil, the 2012 Law of Social Quotas required universities to set aside a percentage of spaces at public universities for black, brown, and indigenous students. Although some universities have seen greater diversity in the student body as a result, the quota system, which guarantees a percentage of spots for minority groups, has also come under scrutiny recently. The value of positions at the more elite, public universities and the practice of student self-identification has led some to cheat the system. Furthermore, in a country with a large number of mixed-raced individuals, some universities have reverted to unsavoury practices to verify minority status. It appears that a lesson Brazil can take from the United States it to move beyond quotas and use race as one of many factors in admission.

Even aside from the essential goal of achieving equity, there is also the other key benefit of any policy on affirmative action, which is to safeguard diversity in education.

The benefits of having diversity in higher education are widely acknowledged including for society in general, as we showed in the GEM 2016. They discover how to work within a cross-cultural team, grapple with difficult conversations and re-examine their own assumptions. The GEM Report feels strongly that this way of working – both in formal education, but also in all lifelong-learning experiences – is the only way we will find new solutions to unsolved problems.

Diversity is also crucial for addressing race relations and increasing the variety of rich educational experiences. It prepares students for the global and diverse world they enter into after university. So failing to prioritise the entry for some, therefore, can in fact impoverish the learning experience for all.

For now, the policy is still legally upheld by the US Supreme Court. It is also still highly valued by the general public. This may not be enough. However, with the root of the policy still unaddressed, we hold out hope that those able will act to ensure equitable access to higher education.


1 comment

  1. Great read! JFK wrote a memo in 1961 in which the policy was designed to ensure non-discrimination in university enrollment. This is important for many parties, especially institution leaders that need to ensure equitable access to higher education. When American institutions take affirmative action, that means that they consider an applicant’s race in their admission factors. I think it was important that it was noted that there have been declines in the number of minority students enrolling in States that have banned the inclusion of race as a factor in admissions. Data has shown that all parties benefit from diversity in many settings. In addition, it will be interesting what factors will continue in admissions with the COVID 19 pandemic taking away many opportunities for students to take the SAT and ACT exams.

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