March 12, 2012

Affirmative Action in College Admissions

imageBy S. Michael Gaddis, Doctoral Student

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The concept of affirmative action often sparks bitter turmoil in both the popular press and U.S. society as a whole. You may know that affirmative action is often cited as a way to combat an historical, ongoing, and ever-evolving presence of discrimination within society. You probably also have your own opinions on affirmative action, particularly in regard to college admissions. What you may not know, however, is that there is a legal history of affirmative action in college admissions in the U.S. and a debate over both its uses and its outcomes still wages today.

In higher education, a legal precedent of affirmative action began with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In 1974, Allan Bakke, a white Vietnam veteran who had performed well academically as an undergraduate and on the MCAT was denied entrance to the UC Davis Medical School for the second year in a row. In his lawsuit, Bakke claimed that the UC Davis Medical School had admitted applicants who were academically inferior to him under a special admission program that effectively saved a set number of spots in the entering class for racial minority applicants. The Supreme Court ruled that Bakke's exclusion was a form of racial discrimination because he was only eligible for the general pool of admissions but not the racial minority pool, whereas racial minorities were eligible for both.

The Bakke case served as an important model in directing future affirmative action programs. Four members of the Court and other higher institutions such as Harvard University and Stanford University in an amicus curiae brief suggested that the use of race for purposes of diversity was a worthy and valid endeavor. However, diversity could not be achieved simply by use of a quota system – marking admission seats in an incoming class as minority only. If colleges and universities wanted to increase the racial diversity of their campuses, they would have to do so without using quotas.

Twenty five years later, in 2003, two subsequent lawsuits decided by the Supreme Court shaped the current culture of affirmative action in college admissions. Both involved the University of Michigan: Gratz v. Bollinger focused on undergraduate admissions and Grutter v. Bollinger focused on law school admissions.

In the first case, the Supreme Court determined that the University of Michigan effectively used a quota system by awarding a pre-determined amount of points to all minorities in the final scores that determined who was admitted as an undergraduate. In other words, everyone received a certain number of points for achieving a perfect score on the SAT but only minority applicants received points for the color of their skin. In the second case, the Court determined that the Law School only gave minorities special consideration on an individual case by case basis in order to improve diversity and determined that this process was legally constitutional. Moreover, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the majority opinion that although such affirmative action policies promote diversity and are legal valid now, they would not be necessary within twenty-five years as diversity occurred more naturally.

Today, only nine years after the lines were drawn for affirmative action, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a new case on affirmative action regarding college admissions, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. A number of states (Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington) have passed constitutional amendments in the interim that ban any use of race-based affirmative action policies including public college admissions. Challenges of these amendments are currently working their way through the legal system. Now retired, Justice O'Connor has written that her suggestion of 25 years was never intended as a hard deadline and encourages more social science research on the benefits of diversity in education. These actions suggest that the debate over affirmative action is far from resolved and the future decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin stands to potentially rewrite the debate altogether.

Proponents argue that there are at least two possible types of benefits to race-based affirmative action policies in education. First, minority groups are not only encouraged to apply but also are more likely to gain admission to colleges and universities, which serves as an equalizer to past and current discrimination. Second, both majority and minority groups on campus benefit from a diversity of cultures, opinions, and experiences.

So, does affirmative action work? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. Some researchers suggest that affirmative action is multifaceted and colleges need to support diversity programs beyond simply creating diverse climates for everyone to reap greater rewards from such programs. Still, data suggest that black student enrollments at the most prestigious University of California public schools (such as Berkeley) have dropped significantly since the state constitutional amendment banning race-based affirmative action was passed. Rolling back affirmative action programs runs the risk of creating a segregated higher education system where black and Hispanic students attend less-selective colleges while whites and Asians attend more-selective upper-tier institutions.

Sociological research suggests that racial discrimination and inequality permeate throughout social institutions and the society at large even today. How do you think the Supreme Court should address these issues and rule on affirmative action policies in college admissions?


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affirmative action is an issue, and colleges is where it truly matters. the goal, at least as I see it ,is to promote people from poor family to go to college, and thus end the cycle of poverty. the issue is that many minority's from richer homes gain advantages over whites. still I support an affirmative action policy based on parents income.

Well, as an African American old enough to experience discrimination and yet young enough to see progress, I see the challenges faced by the Justices, the majority and the minority community to be quite complicated. If there is a solution, I feel requires a multi-faceted approach to ensure some equality and opportunity, while also, requiring some personal and cultural responsibility.

While minorities, and in particular African Americans have made some great strides and accomplishments toward at least a semblance of equality and diversity, I feel we are still 2 or maybe 3 generations away from seeing far reaching advancements in the mentality of both the majority and minority sides of this issue.

We have an African American in the Highest Office of the land, and yet, African Americans (males in particular) make up 40 % of the population in prison, while as a whole African Americans contribute less than 13% to the nation’s population. While many will say, that’s not racism, it because of the choices they've made; the neighborhoods (lower income poverty ridden) they live in and the lack of a nuclear family (two parented households) rearing them. Others might argue, very deftly I might add, that the aforementioned living and lifestyle of the African American community was ingrained in them from the years of psychological damage caused as a result of slavery, racism, bigotry and hatred. Others will say, as a result of the strides made and the election of the first black president that our country is color blind and any arguments against our “color blindness,” comes from race-baiters', profiteers and sympathizers unwilling to promote personal responsibility & accountability.

Both arguments have some fruit and some fluff. I think the highest court in the land should affirm Affirmative Action in College Admissions, as it helps diversify higher academia and offers opportunities which wouldn't be available without it. However, African Americans need to began the process of taking their own future in their hands, breaking the societal and psychological bonds that have held them back so that policies like Affirmative Action aren't necessary.

Lastly, the majority will have to understand that a wound takes a significant longer time to heal than to inflict, and even after healing, the scare remains as a reminder of past afflictions. They need to understand that this wound was inflicted over a span of 400+ years, so they best bet it’ll take a hell of a lot longer than a Black President & 48 years (Civil Rights Act Passed 1964) to heal, learn and move forward.

Hello S. Michael Gladdis,
I find your exposition very insightful. I also feel that we as Americans should strive to make the idea of affirmative action obsolete.

Would you mind reading my blog at ? I would like to have your perspective.

[email protected]
The Green Room at Ohio University

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