Why We Still Need Affirmative Action Policies In College Admissions


The U.S. Supreme Court will rehear the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, which is bad news for supporters of affirmative action. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, had a very good academic record, but she did not place in the top 10 percent of her class. She was still considered for limited spaces but she had to be evaluated based on both a combination of factors such as grades and test scores and more personal qualities, such as leadership, family background, socioeconomic factors and race. The reasons for her rejection are well-documented in ProPublica. The case was narrowly decided in favor of the university and handed down to Fifth Circuit court.

In the past few years, there has been more criticism of affirmative action policies in admissions programs, with one of the most prominent critics being Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. The idea is that colleges should only consider class because income inequality is becoming worse, affirmative action favors wealthy students of color, economic considerations are sufficient and, if race is no longer considered, there needs to be a plan. He doesn’t suggest simply looking at income but provides many factors universities should consider.

But sociologists point out that there are plenty of reasons why affirmative action policies should continue and not be focused only on class differences. There are also many misconceptions about how affirmative action policies work.

History and background of affirmative action

Affirmative action began when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” That executive order was followed by another from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 that required government employers to take affirmative action to “hire without race, religion and national origin,” and gender was also considered beginning in 1967.


There are also different kinds of affirmative action programs, such as what is referred to as a “soft” approach, like for example, doing outreach in order to receive more applications from people of color and other groups, or to make the selection process less biased in order to ensure that students of color aren’t being discriminated against, according to Randall Kennedy’s book, For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action and the Law. The “hard” approaches to affirmative action may mean a college has opportunities specifically for students of color or choosing applicants while including their race as a factor.

Racial quotas were ruled unconstitutional in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case of Gratz v. Bollinger, but affirmative action was upheld in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case of Grutter v. Bollinger. Universities can consider race but only as a part of a more holistic review that considers other individualized factors.

Support of affirmative action policies is divided. Overall, 65 percent of Americans said they supported affirmative action on college campuses, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, with 55 percent of white people in favor of it and 84 percent and 80 percent of black and Hispanic people in favor of it. An overwhelming majority of Democrats supported it, at 78 percent, while only 43 percent of Republicans did.

The problem with soft approaches

One of the problems with a soft approach to affirmative action is that plenty of colleges can find ways to recruit black students who are neither American nor low-income, which negates the intent of affirmative action, said Anthony Greene, assistant professor with the African American Studies program and the Department of Sociology at the College of Charleston. Greene is currently writing a paper on black immigrants’ attitudes toward affirmative action policies.


“Universities such as Yale and Harvard have implemented strategic ways of recruiting black immigrant students. Historically it was designed to right the wrongs of historical structural racism and discriminatory practices but here it is 40 years later, and top tier universities adhere to affirmative action policies but are going around it,” Greene said. “They’re satisfying the student of color issue and international student issue, but if you say, ‘You’re not doing this,’ they can claim ‘Those students can apply, but we’re picking the best of the best.’”

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, African immigrants had a higher level of education attainment than any other immigrant group, with 41 percent having a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2008–2012.

Why income shouldn’t be the only factor

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, has been an advocate for no longer including race and focusing on class. He wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Moreover, if the University of Texas wants students who are bridge builders, it doesn’t need to give a blanket preference to privileged minority students … Letting the Fifth Circuit decision stand would send a dangerous signal to colleges that they can continue to use racial preferences even when alternatives are demonstrably effective. This would be very bad news for poor and working-class students of the type who benefit from alternatives such as class-based affirmative action or percentage plans.”

Kahlenberg says that schools have moved toward class-based models in order in anticipation of attacks on affirmative action and argues that if affirmative action remains, colleges will simply favor privileged students of color instead of low-income students across the board. However, one could argue that is more a symptom of specific kinds of soft affirmative action policies that allow universities to cherry-pick students and more of an argument for hard affirmative action policies. Other education advocates, such as Jennifer Lee, that University of California sociologist and author of The Asian American Achievement Paradox, have also maintained that both class and race and ethnicity should be factored into admissions.


One of the common arguments against considering race as a factor in college admissions is that favoring low-income students would favor black students. However, that doesn’t consider the actual racial makeup of Americans living below the poverty line or the fact that middle-income and wealthy black students do in fact have barriers and obstacles that white students of any income do not.

When you look at the racial and ethnic breakdown of the U.S. poor, 41.5 percent are white, non-Hispanic, 25.4 percent are either black or a combination of black and other races and ethnicities, 4.3 percent Asian and 28.6 percent Hispanic, according to 2011 U.S. Census numbers. Even if you look at those Americans living in extreme poverty, which includes households that make less than 50 percent of the poverty line, 42 percent were white. The black unemployment rate was 10.2 percent in May, an increase from 9.6 percent in April. The overall unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in May.

“If you go class-based, you’ll find poor whites will benefit more, but that’s not how it will be perceived because general narrative around poverty is that black and Latinos make up majority of the poor therefore they’re lazy and sucking up tax dollars,” Greene said. “If you compare poor whites to upper middle class whites you’ll see an achievement gap, and if you compare poor blacks to middle class blacks you see that achievement gap but when you start doing cross-comparisons to poor whites and poor blacks, they will do better, not by much, but when you still see a degree of difference between poor whites, poor blacks and poor latinos.”

Richard Rothstein a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute has critiqued the idea of taking into consideration students who come from impoverished neighborhoods as opposed to race, as advocated by Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University and author of Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America.

Low-income white families tend to live in better neighborhoods than low-income black families, according to U.S. Census data, thus benefiting from a better school system and other advantages, so a place-based system would be fairer to black students than simply counting income or other limited economic factors.

Rothstein argued the plan still doesn’t make up for the wealth setback done by generations of housing discrimination or account for middle class black families, pointing out that families couldn’t acquire wealth from housing equity appreciation. He also pointed out that the black median family income was 61 percent of the white median family income in 2010 but black median family wealth was 5 percent of the white median.

Rothstein argues in The American Prospect that because a family’s wealth is more indicative of whether they can save for college, it affects how black families, including middle class families, prepare and apply for college admissions. Even middle class black families live close to high poverty neighborhoods, which means their children are affected by many of the disadvantages low-income black families are.

The importance of legacy in admissions

One of the policies that advances privilege most is the legacy factor, yet it’s accepted as a common practice and is not treated as controversial as affirmative action is, despite the fact that more qualified students, especially first generation students, are often favored over less qualified legacy students, Greene said.

“[Legacy] has far more impact than any policy. People argue ‘Of course my son should go to the University of Texas if I’m an alumni. I spent all this money my children should be able to get in’ before someone who is a first-generation college student, regardless of if they’re the top tier from their graduating class,” Greene said. “I’ve never heard any debate on eliminating legacy as part of the criteria. I would argue that within a lot of admissions they don’t even view it as ‘legacy,” they just view it as a norm to push their application ahead.”

Why school discipline matters

There is also the matter of school discipline and how disciplinary records are factored into college admissions.

A recent survey by The Center for Community Alternatives shows that 46 percent of colleges gather information on disciplinary records on their individual application materials and 27 percent collect that information from Common Applications. Only 27 percent of the 408 colleges and universities that responded did not use that information and 89 percent of colleges said it influences admissions decision-making.

That’s important to note, because there is plenty of research that shows how racial biases affect student discipline, with students of color, and especially students of color with disabilities, being disciplined more often and more harshly than white students.

“You have middle class, well-adjusted, upwardly mobile, high-scoring black students and Latino students at more prestigious schools who still report instances of discrimination by teachers and are still more likely to be suspended for behavior issues than their white counterparts,” Greene said.

Asian Americans’ role in affirmative action

Jennifer Lee, a University of California sociologist, says the media coverage of Asian Americans’ position on affirmative action is misguided, because 69 percent of Asian Americans support the policy, yet they are portrayed as generally opposing it.

“The general perception is that Asian Americans do not support affirmative action, which is not the case. Rather, Asian Americans have been strategically deployed as a wedge between to dismantle affirmative action,” Lee said.

In May, a coalition of over 60 Asian American groups alleged that Harvard University committed civil rights violations against Asian students in its admissions process and said class should be the only factor in college admissions. But more than 130 Asian American organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Organization of Chinese Americans, Asian Pacific American Network, South Asian Network and Japanese American Citizens League, disagreed with this approach.

It’s true that there is a long history of politicians appealing to Asian Americans in the hopes of dismantling affirmative action. In 1989, Rohrabacher introduced HR 147, which was designed to investigate undergraduate admissions processes that discriminated against Asian applicants. The Japanese American Citizens League and Organization of Chinese Americans did not support the bill, and don’t support the current complaint. The bill instigated a larger conversation, however, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were various investigations of universities for bias against Asian students.

It’s also important to mention that plenty of Asian Americans are advantaged by affirmative action policies, Lee said.

“While some Asian ethnic groups like Chinese and Koreans — who are highly-educated, on average — may not benefit from affirmative action in education, the reality is that affirmative action policies are needed for less advantaged Asian ethnic groups such as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong,” she said. “These groups are disproportionately poor and exhibit higher high school dropout rates than African-Americans and Latinos. Their disadvantage results in poorer test scores and grades, which would make admission into elite universities difficult if admissions were based on these indicators alone.”