College and University Blog

Arguments For and Against Affirmative Action

Around 12% of all college students are African American. If the student body at your college is only 1% African American it’s likely that there is some discrimination at work. This isn’t always the case, but it’s the principle that affirmative action was built on.

Affirmative action is the practice of giving preference to racial minorities or women in hiring or admissions. Affirmative action came to be due to a desire to bring minorities into institutions and professions that had traditionally been dominated by white males. This was after the civil rights movement of the 1960s and was an attempt to give minorities’ social and economic equality.

Racial quotas for public colleges were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case of Bakke v. California. Since then, public colleges seeking to increase diversity have used other types of affirmative action. Private institutions have more freedom in their admissions practices. Most find that other affirmative action policies are a better way of achieving diversity than quotas because they allow for more fairness and greater flexibility.

In the decades since Bakke, affirmative action has been an ethical rather than a legal issue. As long as admission decisions did not employ strict racial quotas, colleges could choose to accept whomever they wanted. This is changing. California’s proposition 209, passed in 1996 with 54% of the popular vote. Proposition 209 prohibits any use of racial preferences in government hiring and public school admissions. Other states are considering similar legislation.

Since affirmative action is an ethical issue, the real question is whether or not affirmative action increases fairness in the admissions process. Additionally, the question is raised on what role diversity plays in both the academic mission of a university and in the quality of life on campus.

Affirmative action in college admissions is more popular among liberals than conservatives. Some of the arguments in favor of affirmative action include:

  • Affirmative action allows for fair evaluation of candidates by making up for existing social inequalities. – The purpose of affirmative action is to increase the admissions rates of minorities that are under-represented in America’s colleges. This under-representation is due to various factors – students from families where few people have pursued higher education are less likely to excel in high school; children who come from communities where English is not regularly spoken face a large disadvantage in reading and writing; and students from school districts with lower funding tend to perform poorly on standardized tests.Affirmative action does not make it easy for students from a disadvantaged background to get into college; it merely makes up for some of their difficulties.
  • A diverse student body creates a better learning environment. – A great deal of learning in college comes from sources other than textbooks and professors. Students can learn a lot from one another, but only if the student body contains a wide range of backgrounds. Colleges go out of their way to make sure that their student bodies contain many different types of people so that each student brings something different to the community.
  • Affirmative action assures that members of all ethnic groups are present. Lowering standards for under-represented groups raises the quality of the student body. – Affirmative action lowers admission standards for certain minorities to counterbalance academic disadvantages faced by those groups. Individuals who benefit from affirmative action must achieve academic excellence relative to other people with similar backgrounds. Affirmative action creates a student body that has tremendous academic potential.

Some of the arguments against affirmative action include:

  • It is unfair to judge applicants on anything other than their merits. – There are numerous factors that a college should take into account when considering applicants – grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities. An applicant’s race is not a legitimate factor to take into consideration because it is outside of the student’s control. It is impossible for a college to consider every aspect of a student’s background when making decisions on whom to admit. Why focus on race when there are so many other things that differentiate students from one another?
  • Affirmative action does not lead to true diversity. – Diversity of opinion is important in an academic community, not racial diversity. Affirmative action provides an advantage to some people because of the color of their skin. This is not an attribute that is relevant to the academic mission of a college. Affirmative action gives preferential treatment based exclusively on race, which is a purely external characteristic.
  • Affirmative action does not help really disadvantaged groups. – In many cases, affirmative action does not achieve its goal of helping disadvantaged minority groups. What it does is perpetuates socioeconomic inequalities by making it easy for members of racial minorities from privileged backgrounds to get into prestigious colleges while not helping members of the lower classes.