Diversity vs. Discrimination: Is Affirmative Action an effective solution to unequal opportunity in college admissions?

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Background Info & Personal Interest

To learn more about my personal interest and for more background on affirmative action, read my Personal Interest Essay.

Brief History of Affirmative Action

While there have undoubtedly been many attempts to correct the disadvantage of minority applicants throughout history, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s brought attention to racial injustice. Ultimately, this sparked colleges to “take prompt steps to break down entrenched patterns of racial exclusion they had come to find unconscionable”, implementing affirmative action policies (Stulberg and Chen). However, throughout history, different colleges have implemented affirmative action in many different ways. In addition, the Supreme Court has largely set the precedent for what affirmative action policies should and should not be allowed, as “there are no explicit federal policies regarding affirmative action in university admissions” (Kramer; Holzer and Neumark). Cases such as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Gratz v. Bollinger, Grutter v. Bollinger, and Fisher v. University of Texas were all very influential on the nature of affirmative action as a whole. Ever since its creation, affirmative action has been a highly divisive and debated issue. 

To learn more about the history of Affirmative Action, read my History of the Problem essay.

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

Current Debate

While affirmative action policies have been implemented in a wide variety of ways, a perfect solution has yet to be found; affirmative action remains a highly controversial topic. The debate surrounding affirmative action is very complex, but below is a chart highlighting the basic benefits and pitfalls of affirmative action. 

Support/ProsOpposition/Cons
Increases diversity, which is beneficial to all students on campuses; studies have shown that diversity in a college setting is beneficial to decrease racial bias and improve communication and leadership skills (Matthew; Crosby, et al).Disproportionally discriminates against Asian-Americans in the admissions process, despite the fact that Asian-Americans are a historically oppressed group (Balingit).
Counteracts the societal discrimination racial minorities such as African-Americans face.In its very nature, affirmative action perpetuates stereotypes that people of color need “special help” to succeed.

Class-Based Affirmative Action

To try to address these controversies and pitfalls highlighted above, some colleges have implemented class-based affirmative action. Essentially, class-based affirmative action disregards race in the admissions process and instead focuses on the socioeconomic class of applicants (Malamud). The theory behind class-based affirmative action is as such: because people of color are disproportionately economically disadvantaged, accounting for class in the admissions process would account for race-based discrimination as well as class-based discrimination (Malamud). However, in practice when implemented, these policies also have major pitfalls. As highlighted in Malamud, it is often difficult to characterize different levels of “economic disadvantage” making it difficult to provide more opportunities. Furthermore, many colleges found that racial discrimination still occurs when merely looking at the class of applicants, due to systemic bias (Malamud).

OVERALL: While they do help to correct societal disadvantage, affirmative action policies are imperfect solutions to create equal opportunity.


Solution

Completely abolishing affirmative action policies would be counterproductive; affirmative action still contributes to the end goal of equal opportunity in college admissions by increasing diversity as well as decreasing discrimination against less wealthy applicants. ——— As evidence of this, in 1996, California banned all affirmative action in Proposition 209, admission rates of Black and Hispanic students fell by 30–50% and minority representation declined (Card, Krueger). Completely banning affirmative action is NOT the solution.

Class-based affirmative action can be used in conjunction with race-based affirmative action to help lessen race-related controversies currently associated with race-based affirmative action. Affirmative action as a whole should also be implemented alongside other anti-discrimination policies to further aid the goal of equal opportunity in college admissions.

Name-Blind Policies

One example of anti-discrimination policies are name-blind policies. Essentially, when looking at an applicant’s credentials, their name is removed, creating a more anonymous hiring system (Rinne). This is beneficial because it helps to combat discrimination; this policy has been shown to result in higher rates of women and minorities being hired (Rinne). When implemented in college admissions, while policies such as these would not eliminate discrimination altogether, they could certainly help to create a more “level playing field”.

In the end, many different types of policies being implemented together on a societal level is a much more robust and effective solution to work towards equitable systems in college admissions.

To learn more about the current problem and my proposed solution(s), read my Current Problem/Solution essay.


What can you do?

External
  1. Have discussions about affirmative action & equal opportunity! Comment your thoughts on this topic below, or talk to friends/family.
  2. Raise awareness & donate to organizations working to solve the problem! For example, the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity (AAAED) is an organization working to “promote understanding and advocacy of affirmative action and other equal opportunity and related compliance laws” (“About the American Association”). You can donate to their cause through this link.
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Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, reflect on your own personal biases against historically disadvantaged groups & work to correct them.

If everyone works to identify and correct their own individual biases on a daily basis, discrimination can be lessened, and equal opportunity policies will not even be needed. 


Thank you so much for visiting my website! I hope that you were able to learn something about affirmative action & equal opportunity in college admissions. Feel free to discuss your thoughts on my project in the comments section- I would love to hear any opinions/ideas you have, as well as any constructive feedback for my project in general. Thank you so much again!

Click here to view my Works Consulted page. All images from Google Images.

8 Comments
Ai-Li_96

Ai-Li_96

Student at Head-Royce School, Oakland, CA USA

8 comments

  1. Ai-Li,
    You tackled this question so beautifully (and I am not just saying that because I agree with your solution). This is a big issue and will get bigger. Thank you for your presentation.

  2. Hi Ai-li, I really enjoyed reading your presentation! I thought you did a great job of outlining the main arguments of each side, and you gave a good concise comprehensive history on the background of affirmative action. I just have have one question about one part of your solution section: when you say “Class-based affirmative action can be used in conjunction with race-based affirmative action” what do you mean exactly? Are you suggesting implementing both and having them work together, but each as a separate program? Or somehow blending the two together? Anyway, loved your presentation! Great Job!

    1. Thank you so much! That is a great question! What I mean by that is that class-based affirmative action and race-based affirmative action are not mutually exclusive. Institutions can have separate goals to focus on inequities associated with race and inequities associated with class, but ultimately the policies that address those inequities may be the same. For example, standardized tests have been shown to have a negative impact on racial diversity and class diversity, so by eliminating the standardized testing requirement, both goals might be fulfilled. However, colleges could also choose to implement two separate policies. Hope this helps!

  3. You did an awesome job addressing both sides of this issue. I feel like affirmative action is very often misunderstood, but you effectively brought to light both the positives and negatives of every claim you addressed. Do you think it’s ever possible to create a college admissions system in which biases are eliminated? Even with the name-blind system (which is very interesting by the way) is it still possible for admissions officers to infuse their own biases while they go through college applications?

    1. Thank you so much! This is a difficult question, because humans are inherently biased so it’s very difficult to eliminate bias altogether. However, I think it is important to make the distinction between individual bias and systemic bias. On an individual level, I don’t think it is possible to eliminate bias entirely, because, as you stated, admissions officers will always infuse their own biases when deciding who to admit. However, on a systemic level, I think it is possible to acknowledge/address biases that are infused through policy. In other words, I think it is possible to design a structure in which no groups are systematically discriminated against.

  4. Very impressive indeed. Proposition 16 in 2020 election was definitely related. Very much a important topic to research! So proud of You !

    1. Very impressive indeed. Proposition 16 in 2020 election was definitely related. Very much a important topic to research! So proud of You!

  5. We think Martin Luther King, Jr has it right: “ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”

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