Few issues are as polarizing in American political discourse as affirmative action. Lying at the center of the national conversation on diversity and inclusion, many ardently defend it as a pillar of the U.S. collegiate system, while others strongly oppose its unmeritocratic principles and argue that other methods exist to better promote diversity on campuses. Since its inception in the 1960s, affirmative action has been entrenched in controversy, yet has managed to survive in some form at many major universities. With the Supreme Court set to hear arguments on affirmative action this month and likely to finally strike it down this term, however, it’s worth evaluating both the positive and negative aspects of affirmative action to see if there’s room for compromise on future policies to better promote diversity in higher education.
Of all the educational institutions in America, few have been as directly involved in the history of affirmative action as the University of Michigan. After years of incorporating race into its admissions criteria, the University’s affirmative action policies were first thrust into the national spotlight in the 2003 Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that while the University of Michigan’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions could use race as a factor in their decisions, it must individually assess applicants rather than automatically boosting the candidacy of any underrepresented minority. Shortly after the decision, support began to build for an outright ban on affirmative action, culminating in a 2006 statewide vote that struck down any preferential treatment by race in public education. After a lower court set aside this referendum, the University again lost a Supreme Court case in 2014 when the justices voted 6-2 to reinstate the law, banning the use of racial criteria in University admissions.
Since then, University administration has worked to find alternative ways to diversify the campus without utilizing affirmative action. Despite their efforts, however, the percentage of Black students on campus has decreased from 7% to 4% since the 2006 vote, leading some to argue that, while imperfect, affirmative action is the most effective way for the University to maintain diversity. While there are many arguments in favor of affirmative action, perhaps the most common one stresses the importance of creating equitable admissions standards that account for racial inequality and differences in opportunity. Secondarily, supporters emphasize the importance of exposing students to diverse perspectives on campus and creating a culture of diverse leadership that can draw from their experiences to make better decisions.
Though these are all strong arguments that capture the positive aspects of affirmative action, there are also many valid critiques that uncover some unsavory components. While opinion has shifted over time, a majority of Americans in each racial group still believe that race and ethnicity should not be factored into college acceptance decisions. Most arguments against affirmative are rooted in ideas of fairness and meritocracy.
In recent years, the most common criticism of affirmative action has been its negative effects on Asians. On average, when taking the SAT, Asian Americans must score 270 points higher than Latino students and 450 points higher than African American students “to be considered equal in the application process.” This, in addition to disparities in the way the personality and achievements of Asian students are evaluated compared to other minorities, has led many to contend that affirmative action helps some minorities at the expense of others.
In some instances, the existence of affirmative action has led to minority students — that are just as deserving of their admission as others on campus — finding themselves labeled as ‘diversity admits.’ Even when explicit discrimination does not take place, imposter syndrome stemming from this perception negatively impacts many individuals.
When asked about his views on affirmative action, Michigan College Republicans Chairman Matthew Zhou summarized a viewpoint espoused by many on the right. “Although affirmative action was instituted with well intent, the program serves as pure theater today.” Zhou continued to say that “most people who benefit from affirmative action are wealthy, coming from relatively privileged backgrounds. As such, affirmative action doesn’t actually even the playing field, while holding back people who don’t come from ‘minority’ races.” This complex web of affirmative action based on legacy status, purported athletic performance and race has caused an originally well intentioned system to lose its way.
This argument is premised on the existence of a class divide that some posit is deeper than the race divide in this country, leading many to argue for the expansion of programs that bridge the economic gap in the admissions process.
Overall, while affirmative action has tremendously benefited society since the 1960s by integrating universities and providing opportunities for millions of underrepresented individuals. That being said, we are a much different nation than we were in the 1960s, both demographically and socioeconomically. As we prepare for the nation to make an abrupt transition away from race-conscious admissions, it’s important to consider the flaws of affirmative action and how we can constructively address them.
The University of Michigan is in a unique position during this pivotal moment, as the school has operated without affirmative action since 2006. While programs like the Go Blue Guarantee have been a success, in order to improve minority representation, the University must do a better job with outreach in disadvantaged communities. Many qualified potential admits are not accepted to the University because of the simple fact that they never consider applying, thinking that it would be too expensive or that they would not get in. By shifting its strategy from increasing diversity through changing admissions standards to expanding the socioeconomic demographics of its applicant pool, the University can make strides toward achieving diversity while maintaining a high caliber of students.
Though the racial divide is stark, the class divide at most elite institutions is even more extreme. Though the University offers an incredible set of programs for low income students such as application fee waivers, automatic scholarship consideration for applicants and average tuitions under $700 for Michigan families making under $95,000 a year, many of these programs are underutilized. Of the 301 schools with the most applicants to the University, in-state public schools had an income 20% higher than the average Michigan household income, while out-of-state public schools had household incomes more than double the national median. While the combination of work-study and need-based financial aid makes the University cheaper than some community colleges, clearly many prospective applicants are scared to apply because of the lack of transparency surrounding these programs.
Since there exists a significant correlation between race and socioeconomic status as it pertains to household income and parent education, by doubling down on efforts to recruit low income students, the University can increase diversity on campus and assuage concerns about unfairly discriminating against any racial demographic. In a country where socioeconomic status, ahead of ability and even race, is the single most important predictor of future success, the University can make a significant impact by promoting access to need-based scholarships and financial aid for talented individuals who would otherwise struggle to achieve upwards mobility.
As opposed to affirmative action, amping up recruitment in low income communities is easily achievable in the short run. By deploying more of its admissions team and resources towards such areas, the University can improve access to information about the University as well as the support it provides to low income students. All of this would lead to a more constructive system, where both supporters and detractors of affirmative action could work together to support a program that not only helps racial minorities, but increases opportunities for economically disadvantaged students of all races. While it remains to be seen what will happen to the University of Michigan and other universities as affirmative action is whittled away, let’s hope that something productive can come of this moment.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.