Updated: Apr 30, 2018
For the first time in its over three-hundred year history, Harvard University’s freshman class of 2021 was comprised of a majority non-white student body. As the oldest university in the nation, Harvard prides itself upon its diversity and use of affirmative action. Be it Stanford, Berkeley, or the Ivy Leagues, many students across the country have had ideas of higher education instilled in them since a young age. But what happens when access to these institutions is unequal? And what happens when schools take steps to close these gaps in opportunities? From a 4.0 unweighted GPA, extracurriculars, and sports, to private tutors and supplemental essay ghost writers, college admissions are all but simple. Although the college process is comprised of so many factors,- the relevancy of many of them subjective to the university and the student- when discussions of affirmative action come into play, many are quick to dismiss the rationale for using race as a factor in college admissions. The arguments against affirmative action often arise on the grounds that it’s unfair and that it strips white or non-minority students of their right to go to college. Often times, students who do not benefit directly when it comes to affirmative action, and others who dismiss it, fail to recognize the decades of inequality in education that make the system so necessary and powerful for underrepresented students in the first place. In other cases, some fail to concede to the fact that affirmative action does not excuse students of color from fulfilling the basic core requirements a university has established in their admissions process. Affirmative action does not make attempts to push white, Asian, or other groups of students down in the application process. Rather, it attempts to counteract the inequality indigenous and Native American, Hispanic/ Latino, and African American students are more likely to encounter later on due to their ethnic backgrounds as well as counteract discrimination many have endured prior to applying to college. Additionally, more diverse campuses benefit the larger college community as exposure to people from different races and backgrounds expands the experience of all students. As a method of attempting to compensate for past wrongs, align current opportunities, and promote diversity, both public and private universities should take race and ethnicity into account as a factor in admissions.
One of the leading justifications to include race in the college admissions process is the necessity to compensate for past inequities. Be it slavery, internment, or the forced removal of indigenous people, many argue that the history of the United States has established a form of institutionalized racism that has manifested itself in the lack of housing and educational opportunities provided to non-white citizens of this nation. It is clear that those with greater wealth, more often than not white students, have a greater chance of attending college and pursuing a high-paying career. But what many fail to recognize is the effect that the history of racism towards people of color in this nation has on the ability of students of color to obtain adequate resources and equal wealth. Additionally, our nation as a whole should aim to effectively provide reparations for to groups who suffered from occurrences that American society has benefitted from or caused as a whole, such as interference throughout Central and South America as well as Mexico to the enslavement and erasure of African American and Native American/ indigenous culture. Due to our interference, as well as the resulting sentiments we hold within this nation towards many groups of color, existing systems set in place primarily benefit caucasians. In education specifically, fewer people of color have access to top K-12 schools than whites due to wealth inequality as well as cultural differences preventing these groups from attending top universities or at times any college at all. Due to this, the system remains in place. As Alexandra Killewald, a professor of sociology at Harvard, elaborates in her studies about the differences in white and black family education and wealth, “race differences in other indicators of social origins, such as differences in childhood neighborhoods and school quality resulting from racial segregation...play a role in depressing young blacks’ assets beyond what is captured by parental class”. She later goes on to explain that even with financial systems set into place for the benefit of majority colored communities, it is more beneficial to attack the root of the problem- adequate access to education and jobs. While white students lack ethnic diversity some schools want, they hold a higher average of qualities of greater consideration, such as grade point averages and standardized test scores due to greater access to more sought after college preparatory high schools. Those who object to factoring race into college applications, or the implementation of affirmative action programs on the grounds that all applications should have equal consideration, fail to recognize that using these systems moves the education system as a whole towards greater equality. For those who oppose based on the grounds that all students should have an equal right to attend college, the same argument holds. In truth, though no one in the United States currently has an inherent right to attend college, all people should have an equal opportunity to be granted admissions to higher education. Consideration and preference for students of historically oppressed and marginalized groups such as Latinos and African Americans actually benefits the mission of those who believe in equal opportunity in the long run, as including race balances the valued factors in college admissions and later assists these groups to equal involvement in higher ranking professions and greater economic self-sufficiency. In order to combat decades of racism and the resulting inequality of opportunity in attending elite colleges, as well as earning as much to the dollar as non-minorities, colleges should maintain any existing affirmative action systems set into place and begin considering race if they lack them currently.
The second argument, and perhaps the most strongly agreed upon and argued for within communities of color, is the explanation that the ongoing presence of racism in society justifies the use of race as a factor in college admissions. With the majority of people believing that racism is still a major problem within this nation, it’s easy to argue that more needs to be done to ensure equal access to things such as housing and healthcare. However, belief towards allowing greater access for minority groups into higher education still remains mixed. Though research suggests that the number of African American and Latino students enrolled in college has increased, a Hechinger Report found that the gap between whites and people of color is still increasing, elaborating that “as public colleges become more costly, it’s harder...to finish a degree” for students of low-income families, students who are “disproportionately black or Latino”. The report acknowledges perhaps the most important point to consider while evaluating affirmative action, that “65 percent of jobs by 2020 will require education beyond high school”. Another Pew Research study found that as wealth inequality has decreased between white and non-white low-income households, “racial and ethnic wealth inequality among middle-income families increased during or after the recession”, margins which “did not diminish from 2013 to 2016”. This signifies that while families of color move into higher tiers of wealth, they still experience lower average income than that of white families of the same division. This, in turn, clarifies that although even non-minorities fall into lower-income communities and financial situations, people of color within the same classifications make less money with the same amount of education or have endured greater discrimination in the process. The first argument usually posed by those in opposition to affirmative action due to contemporary issues is the perceived unfairness of one group receiving explicit preference over another due to ethnicity. But the same people who are quick to dismiss allowing ‘privilege’ gifted to non-white students are quite often the very same who dismiss their own access to privilege throughout life. Due to this, considering race as a factor in college admissions to admit more non-white or minority students allows for greater equality in opportunity following college, where race does impact community, jobs, and pay. By the means of taking students’ race into consideration during the college application process, we move one step closer to no longer requiring a system such as affirmative action. With some of the most shameful events and systems in this nation present less than one century ago, racism still exists in our modern society. The United States’ history of oppression and sponsored discrimination has led to our current issues of racial profiling and discrimination in everyday life, including education. In our often cyclical system of not having equal opportunities to go to college causing one to not attend higher education and resultantly later on not having equal opportunities due to lack of a college degree, policies such as affirmative action must remain in place or be established in pursuit of furthering the development of equality in this country. Affirmative action, as well as considering race as one factor in a student’s college admission, should remain a system in place if done so in order to promote admission of minority students prepared for the school in question.
As the system currently stands, the term ‘affirmative action’ applies only to the “preferential treatment” given to an individual of a minority race or ethnicity applying to certain schools. Currently, many universities describe their reasoning for using this system, for those that do, as in hopes for greater diversity in the classroom and deeper understanding of students across very different walks of life. In a recent article published by The Century Foundation, in which experts weigh in on the benefits of “racially diverse” schools, the group articulates that increased diversity in school systems provides “a more meaningful form of racial and ethnic integration, leading to greater mutual respect, understanding, and empathy across racial lines”. Though the primary focus of the article is the necessity for K-12 schools to promote diversity, the authors elaborate on the need for the continual influence of diversity upon the learning environment, from kindergarten to college to the workplace. Many are quick to attack these sentiments, truthful or not, stating that in cases such as those of affirmative action, the university is simply using minority students with a view to jump in rankings as a diverse and inclusive institution. Additionally, many believe race to be an unimportant factor in determining the status of one’s college admission, some citing socioeconomic backgrounds as more relevant while others dismiss the belief that discrimination or hardship based upon the “minority” status of a group of individuals. In both cases, opponents of the use of race as a factor in the college application and admissions process believe race to be an unimportant or unneeded factor in acceptance to a university. What supporters of these ideas often fail to recognize is that most, if not all, factors considered in one’s college application could subjectively be deemed “unimportant” or “unfair”. Issues from the inaccessibility of adequate resources outside of school such as private tutors and college counselors to the minuscule difference between one’s A- and another’s B+ lead to discussions regarding the fairness of any and all factors most schools take into account. Just as students with large donor families, legacy status, or private tutors and hours of college admission assistance often lack reservations regarding their admission, affirmative action students have just taken advantage of the opportunities supplied to them. The only difference, as it seems, is that the method of stepping towards a more equal society is questioned rather than the use of money or other “non-important” factors. Factors beyond one’s control, from socioeconomic status to whether or not your parents had the opportunity to attend higher education, make up one’s individual outlook and approach to education, and provide an overall improvement to the learning environment of the college once attending. Allowing for as many factors as possible to be considered helps colleges gather a diverse population in experience as well as academic interest, socioeconomic status, and ethnic background. By including race as a potential factor in the admission process in order to grant better opportunities to non-white and minority students, or allowing the use of systems resembling affirmative action, students of all backgrounds attending the school receive greater cross-racial knowledge and preparation for the increasingly diverse workforce outside of college.
Though many establish multitudes of ways to dismiss the legitimacy of factoring in the race of every student and their high school career, there is a staggering amount of statistical data that proves not only that Hispanic/Latino, African American, and Native/ indigenous students warrant preference within the college application process, but that they need it. For the sake of disrupting the repetitive cycle of wealth inequality and racial disparities found within the educational system, institutions of higher education must provide screening of applications that takes into account the aspects of life that have made the applicant the overall student and person they are, with race being one of the most influential aspects of one’s life in some cases. An argument brought about by many lower-middle and working-class white families is for affirmative action not based upon ethnicity but upon economic status. Though it may initially appear a good strategy, shifting affirmative action to a financially-focused system would lead to an even greater rift between races on campus, with most people of color selected from lower-income backgrounds as the demographic of more wealthy communities remains majority white. Additionally, as illustrated by a recent Pew Research study, minorities within lower income communities remain less well off than their white equivalents, with low income Hispanic and Latino families making a third, and black families one fourth, of the average net income of a white low income household. Finally, this hypothetical change to the pre-existing affirmative action system also fails to recognize the fact that many universities already receive information regarding their economic status, many including this information not only in financial aid reports but in the actual admissions process. In order to truly combat the inequality of minority students coming out of college and graduate school, we must hold greater emphasis on retention programs and inclusivity on college campuses for students as well as balancing the scale for minority students in the admissions process. Implementing this, as well as the use of affirmative action programs in more ‘elite’ private universities such as Stanford or the Ivy Leagues will mean greater economic and ethnic diversity within the college campus, and an accurate reflection of the racial demographic of the United States.