What’s Next for Affirmative Action?
Affirmative action has roots going back to 1957, with the Civil Right Movement. As part of the Civil Rights Act, college admissions officers were tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that higher education is equally available to all students regardless of race or ethnicity. Historically, most colleges and universities have taken this mandate even farther with policies that actively pursue racial and ethnic diversity on their campuses.
In the last few years, such policies have become increasingly controversial. Here is a look at some of the issues around affirmative action and where it may be headed in the future.
Is This Discrimination?
Some argue that Affirmative Action, when not carried out according to the mandates of the Constitution, actually results in discrimination against white Caucasian applicants. A few years ago, a young white woman named Abigail Fisher brought a case against the University of Texas at Austin claiming that she was unfairly discriminated against based on her race. Although the case was not decided in her favor at the district court, she brought it to the Supreme Court and was successful.
Last year for the first time, Harvard admitted an incoming class in which the majority was non-white, begging the question as to how much race weighs in their admission decisions to the possible exclusion of other relevant factors. Is Affirmative Action still necessary? Or has it devolved into reverse discrimination?
Who Really Benefits?
Even today, it can’t be denied that there are deserving but underprivileged students among us who need some admissions advantages. One study found that the top colleges in the U.S. admit more students in the top 1% of income levels than from the entire bottom 60%. And the pursuit of racial diversity seems to accomplish little to nothing in resolving this discrepancy: even among admitted minority students, 86% are in the middle or upper class.
It is unlikely that we will see Affirmative Action go away in the future. Ethnic and racial diversity is essential to preserving a vibrant, meaningful campus life. But many schools are revising the way they think about Affirmative Action to keep it in the true spirit of the Civil Rights Act. In most cases, they are required to show that they’ve made an effort to choose students on racially neutral measures before resorting to Affirmative Action. As a result, we will see more inclusive and race-neutral policies, such as granting an admissions edge to economically disadvantaged students or admitting the top 10% in every high school class. Such policies can help ensure diversity without employing race as a primary factor in the admissions process. We have already seen such policies at play in places like Texas A&M and the University of Florida.
While diversity will always be cherished, it may be a good moment for college admissions officers to redefine the term.