This essay will explain
the idea behind affirmative actions in college admission. This topic is still
widely discussed in the United States. The main arguments for and against
affirmative action will be pointed out and the examples of UCLA as well as the
situation with Asian-Americans will help to illustrate the issue followed by
some ideas for alternatives. The essay will end with a reflection and expression
of my personal opinion on that matter.
“You do not take a person who, for years, has
been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to up to the starting line
of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and
still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” – Lyndon B. Johnson
With these words, then President Lyndon B. Johnson sparked the heated debate
about affirmative action in employment and college admission in 1965 (Kahlenberg, 2015).
But what exactly is ‘affirmative action’? Simply put, it is an active attempt
to provide everyone with the same opportunities by putting the disadvantaged
into a more favorable position. Many attributes such as sex or race can serve
as a criterion to determine who deserves an advantage. For the last five
decades, race seemed to have been the most commonly used criterion, especially
in college admission. In the job market it can be seen that more and more
employers do not only regard race as an important feature of future employees
but also sex (Zinshteyn, 2016).
In the United States, colleges focus their affirmative
action policies in admissions on blacks and Hispanics. Affirmative Action is
supposed serve as a mean to make up for discrimination in the past and lingering
effects that might still exist today (Slater, 2013).
There are two types of affirmative action: weak
affirmative action and strong affirmative action. A weak affirmative action
policy uses racial preference as a tie breaker; so if there are two equally
qualified applicants, one from a minority and one from a non-minority, the
minority-applicant would be picked. A strong affirmative action policy, on the
other hand, prefers the minority-applicant on the base of his race and does not
take into account that the other non-minority-applicant might be more qualified
Most widely common nowadays are strong affirmative action policies, especially
in many US-American colleges.
But what reasons do both parties, proponents as well
as opponents of affirmative action, have to defend or attack these
Proponents of affirmative action policies rely most
heavily on the argument of ensuring diversity in the classroom. Especially in
our modern times we are surrounded by people from different backgrounds. While
in former times the ‘diversity’ might have been a solely socio-economic
diversity, such as having students from an affluent family study with students
from a poorer background, the diversity that is aimed for nowadays is a racial
and thus also a cultural one. It is believed that people in a diverse classroom
can not only learn a lot on an academic level but especially on a personal
level by learning from one another (Slater, 2013).
Furthermore successful minorities in prestigious
colleges and later on in leading positions serve as a role model and inspire
other people with a minority status to strive for excellence and work hard (Wasson, 2004).
Another argument which is often brought up by
proponents of affirmative action is the fact that the demographic of a state is
less represented in universities that have abandoned race as an admission
criterion compared to those that still have a race-conscious admission policy (Newkirk II, 2017). The example of
California can help to illustrate that point: Even though almost 50 percent of California’s
college-aged population is either black or Hispanic, on many campuses these
minority students only account for roughly a quarter of the freshmen (Ashkenas, Park and Pearce, 2017).
The argument of reversed racism is often dismissed as
being less bad as opponents of affirmative action like to believe. The racism
minorities experienced up until the 60s put them in an inferior position; they
were regarded as less worthy, second-class citizens. Affirmative action,
however, does not treat any race as less worthy. Instead they it aims to create
equal opportunity for everyone (Sandel, 2009).
One of the affirmative
actions’ opponents’ biggest arguments is the Mismatch Theory. The idea behind this theory is that a student who
entered a university not on the base of his/her academic abilities but rather
due to a preference in race might not be able to keep up with the others in a
classroom where the rest of the students meets the college’s academic
requirements. The results can vary from a lower self-esteem over lower grades,
not passing exams and thus not graduating or dropping out to having a hard time
finding a job later in the market. Authors Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.
express worries in their book Mismatch:
How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why
Universities Won’t Admit It about how some
universities might lower their requirements for graduation to ensure and show
that also many minority students obtain their degree (Zinshteyn, 2016).
Sander refers to a study
which compared black students attending their first-choice school due to
race-conscious admission policies to black students that voluntarily went for
their second-choice university where they would be better ‘matched’. In his
analysis he concludes that the share of students who failed their first bar
exam was higher amongst those who enrolled in their first choice college where
they are ‘mismatched’ compared to those who opted for their second and more
academically qualified choice (Slater, 2013).
The mismatch theory seems
to apply especially to students of science, technology, engineering and math –
the so-called STEM majors. Main reason for that finding is the fact that in
these studies new knowledge is built on existing knowledge from previous
semesters. So if a student has a hard time keeping up with the pace of the
class in the short run, he/ she is more likely to have a problem keeping up in
the long run too (Slater, 2013). Furthermore
these studies are graded stricter; demanding concise answers that do not leave
much room for interpretation or individual insights (Zinshteyn, 2016).
An example opponents of
affirmative action often refer to is the UCLA which banned a race-conscious
admission policy after the Proposition 209 in 1998. Despite the initial drop in
enrollment of blacks and Hispanics, numbers started rising again. True, ever
since the ban there were never as many minorities enrolled compared to the
numbers before the ban. However, the UCLA pointed out that the amount of
minorities graduating did not change after the Prop 209 ban. The main reason
for this phenomenon was, simply put, the reduction in mismatch. Minority
students who were not qualified enough to attend went to less elite schools
where their chances of graduating were higher than in the more elite ones.
Academically strong Hispanic and black students, however, managed to get
admitted to UCLA nonetheless. So in short, while less minority students were
enrolled, most of them were granted their bachelor degrees (Sander and Taylor Jr., 2012).
Another argument against
affirmative action is the increased race-consciousness. The fact that race is a
criterion in college admission draws the focus onto it and thus diminishes the
effort of many to create a ‘color-blind’ society. Racism is to this day a big
problem in the United States and placing importance on race will only foster
racism. If minorities, admitted through affirmative action, then fall behind in
class because the classroom pace does not match their academic capabilities,
that in turn can then reinforce the stereotype many people have about
minorities being less intelligent (Sander and Taylor Jr., 2012). The race-segregation
on the basis of academic background within the college is not a desirable
outcome (Reardon et al.,
2016). Furthermore, affirmative action
keeps putting minorities in an inferior, victim position. In order to attain an
advantage, the minorities first need to see themselves as victims which in turn
only creates more tensions between individuals of different races (Wasson, 2004).
When there is a winner –
in this case Hispanics and blacks – there is often a loser – namely whites and
Asian-Americans. While proponents of affirmative action promote the argument of
having universities match the demographics of the country, critics point out
the case discrimination against Asian-Americans in particular. Within about 20
years in the late 20th century the enrollment of Asian-Americans at
Harvard increased by 15%. During the 90s, however, the share of Asian-Americans
started decreasing; not only at Harvard but at many other Ivy League colleges
as well. What is so striking about this trend is the fact that the number of
Asian-Americans in college-age increased throughout the states. This suggests
that the admirable goal of affirmative action to match the student body’s
composition to demographics does not work out all that well. Asian-Americans have
to perform much better on SAT scores and
are held to higher standards compared to other applicants. On the other hand,
enrollment of Asian-Americans in universities that practiced a race-neutral
admission policy, started to increase (The Economist,
In response to the
proponents’ argument of creating diversity in the classroom one can question
the assumption that skin color automatically equals a different viewpoint.
Especially nowadays, where many people are the second, third or even fourth
generation of people with a different background, they might share the same
views and values as their white fellow citizens (Wasson, 2004).
Are there any alternatives to race-conscious policies in
court in the famous Fisher vs. University of Texas case has argued that race
should only play a part in college admission if the school is unable to find
any alternatives for increasing diversity on campus (Long, 2015).
A suggestion by Sander in the book Mismatch for colleges is to be more
transparent, especially for the students. This transparency can be achieved by
collecting and analyzing data on how students with a certain academic level
performed in a particular major. The data can then serve as a guideline for
applying or admitted students and then it is up to them to decide whether the
school really is the right one for them (Zinshteyn, 2016).
Furthermore, the two
authors propose that universities should improve their recruiting strategies.
Summer programs and SAT preparation classes for students who are struggling
academically are amongst their suggestions (The Economist,
Schools could also shift
their focus from race to low-income students. Studies found that Hispanics and
blacks tend to be poorer than their white counterparts. This would satisfy the
affirmative action’s proponents’ desire for more diversity in the classroom
without preferring someone to another simply because of their skin color.
Furthermore, focusing on the financial situation would benefit a broader
spectrum of people as there are also many white Americans living in poverty and
thus are at a disadvantaged position (Deruy, 2016). Many black
students enrolled in university tend to have a middle- or even upper-class
background and are more likely to have a good K-12 education compared to poor
blacks (The Economist,
Public universities in
states such as Texas, Florida and California started adopting a top 10%
admission policy: The top 10% of their high school class were automatically
admitted. This includes also high schools with a very high share of minority
students. It has been shown that this policy increased the enrollment of blacks
and Hispanics (Wasson, 2004; The
policies seem to only cover up the symptoms of the imbalance but not cure the
root cause of it. Affirmative action policies only take place in secondary
education. But would it not make more sense to aim for academic equality much
earlier by improving the K-12 education, ranging from kindergarten to high
school (Wong, 2016)?
While it is true that
affirmative action helped a lot of disadvantaged blacks starting in in the 60s,
I personally find the opponents’ arguments more compelling, especially the
mismatch theory. Is it really worth going to a prestigious school just to
obtain a mediocre degree? A university’s main goal should be to challenge and
educate its students; to help them grow and thrive. And of course, there are
some universities that are more suitable than others for specific studies and
academic levels. There is no shortage in universities across the country so
there should be plenty of alternatives to schools at which one might be
mismatched. One possible driving force that makes students opt for more
selective colleges might be the social pressure. Society tells us to get the
best education in order to get the best job so we can live a good life. The
question, however, is: What is “the best”? Best for whom? Best for what
I can see where the
proponents are coming from and I am a supporter of diversity and the value it
adds to one’s personal development. But it seems that affirmative action’s
initial goal of providing everyone with equal opportunities has been replaced
by the ‘socially worthy’ aim of creating diversity. The biggest loser, is the
group of minorities who to this day still live in destitution; they do not
benefit from affirmative action as much as they should. Main reason for that is
the fact that other minorities coming from more affluent families as likely to
have had a better K-12 education and thus fulfill the criteria of
minority-status as well as better grades. Universities really should consider to take socio-economic
backgrounds into consideration to ensure that these poor minorities also get a
chance. However, if this attempt fails, I do not see any point in continuing to
practice affirmative action.
The alternatives that
convinced me the most are the Top 10% as well as improving the K-12 education
along with improved outreached programs.
Affirmative action is a
complicated topic and it seems to me that the debate of whether schools should
still implement it in their college admission will still be going on for some
But when has affirmative action reached its goal? When is it no longer needed?
And even more important: Who determines its end?