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Affirmative Action in College Admissions: an Exploration of Equity, Quality, and the Diversity Variable

When it comes to colleges and universities admitting students, individual establishments rely heavily on the methodology utilized by their school's admission committee in order to ensure the fair and optimal inclusion of students who will be ushered in as their approved candidates. Affirmative action in the collegiate environment was put in place with the lofty ideal of creating a diverse, multi-cultural and balanced student body for the campus and in the classroom. It is "rooted in Equity, the branch of Anglo-American jurisprudence that provided discretionary remedies in situations where the rigid application of common law rules would yield manifestly unjust results." Over time, the practice has been called into question from both a legal and political/social perspective. Recent years have seen a substantial increase in the number of individuals fighting against affirmative action with respect to higher education and, as a result, a number of states have ceased to practice race-based affirmative action with respect to their admission processes.

Aug 10, 2016   /   Visits: 2,988 Printable versionPrintable

College Admissions Affirmative Action
It is the aim of this paper to illustrate that affirmative action as a strictly race-based promotion is becoming antiquated. At the same time, this does not mean that diversity would occur naturally in such settings. Affirmative action as a platform for the equality of all socio-economic groups would be a much more modern and applicable interpretation of the concept, one which would be much more beneficial and useful to college admission programs. Such interpretation and consideration in terms of application approval methodologies would likely garner less backlash and criticism from those opposed to race-based affirmative action and would force higher education environments to consider the future of applicants and their potential backgrounds.

Affirmative action was designed to protect minorities and ensure equality following the thirteenth amendment. Diversity in education is important and beneficial. "A range of experiences and backgrounds improves class discussions, better prepares students for diversity in the workplace, and encourages a general understanding or people who think and feel differently on a variety of issues." Affirmative action based on race was, and in many ways still is, important and valuable in that it allows for the breakdown of stereotypes through a critical mass level being reached with respect to diversity. Diversity has also been noted to allow for a class "stronger than the sum of its parts", prevent the isolation or token status mentality of minority students and to help make minority students feel comfortable in class when discussing their individual experiences with the group.

Legally, affirmative action, race-based affirmative action in particular, is being tested in court. It has been argued through court systems around the nation, culminating in cases being presented to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. While the prominent case on the issue as it has become manifested in recent years continues to be the 2003 Supreme Court case of Grutter v. Bollinger, the issue remains extremely pervasive and is likely to evolve in terms of specifics as the years continue on.

When Justice O'Connor wrote on the opinion for Grutter v. Bollinger, her rationale was heavily influenced by another case from the past, the 1978 case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In the 1978 case, Justice O'Connell's Supreme Court mentor, Justice Powell rejected the university's quota system. However, he did acknowledge in the presentation of his opinion that the system should continue to allow for race to be used as a consideration for admissions because of the benefits which would be feasible for the entirety of the school and not just the individual. In the 2003 case, which took place 25 years later, the same basic sentiment was echoed in Justice O'Conner's opinion. She wrote that "diversity was at the heart of the school's proper institutional mission and...acting in good faith." As such, race-based affirmative action "appears to hinge at least partly on the extent to which universities are able to successfully achieve racial diversity using alternate policies."

Even more current cases, such as Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, defer to the important and influential ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger wherein "universities should receive deference in identifying diversity as a compelling interest, but not in selecting the means by which they achieve that interest". This notion is promoted further by Jason Blokhuis. The scholar from Roehampton University explains, "Universities can and must predicate admissions on indices of merit that are liked to their institutional missions. Merit is relative to the particular ends at stake, however, and applicants who claim a right of admission based on grades or test scores alone overlook this." For affirmative action to continue to be legal, it will be important to investigate the specifics of potential merit for affirmative action, specifically it will be important to consider attributes outside of race.

Diversity does not need to be based solely on race. It is important to consider a number of other qualities and experiences, which cumulatively could add to the diversity of a student body and even potentially increase diversity to an even greater extent than the current application of race in higher education applications and admissions. Minorities are important and their perspectives, values, beliefs and contributions help to educate and enrich the lives of the majority, and vice versa. In higher education settings, increased numbers of minorities offer to the majority a sense of vitality, stimulation and potential for improved and more expansive educational opportunities for all students present in the higher education environments. Such a unique experience is far less likely to present itself when compared to homogenous environments in higher education. It is important, however, to clarify the term minority and the understandings that people may take for granted when it comes to understanding the term.

"While the United States was 83% white in 1996, researchers now project that the United States' minority population will rise from one in every four Americans to one in every two Americans by 2050" (Richman). As such, many people likely consider the majority race of the United States of America to be white. However, the statistics simultaneously predict that this will not be the case in the future, as the population of the nation continues to grow. The "post-racial society" of the future, as it has been referred to by some scholars, will likely lessen the need for affirmative action to be present with respect to race, but not in terms of those who experience and practice less-common lifestyles, beliefs and perspectives. There will still be a minority of the people of the United States of America, it will just likely present itself in a less obvious manner.

There are some programs in place which function outside race-based inclusion in the higher education environment. For example, there is the percent plan. Percent plan options exist in states such as Texas, California and Florida. They are the first of the race-neutral policies to become practical in higher education environments and allow for applicants who score in the top percentage of their high school to automatically be approved as applicants for state funded schools.

These types of understandings and policies potentially stem from the fact that affirmative action based on race is being upheld in court, but it is nonetheless being challenged from a political perspective. In such areas, the people are voting to ban race-based affirmative action despite the legal upholding of the Supreme Court. Another option being touted by individuals such as Professor Richard Sanders is the notion of class-based affirmative action. Class diversity in higher education is a concept which is promoted by a number of individuals, including Angela Onwuachi-Willig and Amber Fricke; however, the two argue that the two concerns are not "mutually exclusive of and incompatible with each other."

Finding a functional manner by which to measure and calculate socioeconomic status and the conclusions of such considerations may need some fine-tuning, but this does not mean it would be a completely unviable option for ensuring diversity for future generations applying to higher education environments through a specialized affirmative action. While Professor Sanders relies on the level of education of the applicant's parents and the occupation of the parents of the applicant, Onwuachi-Willig and Fricke argue that the accumulation of data for determining the socioeconomic status of the applicant neglects racial implications. This and other concerns have been brought forth and, reasonably, would have to be rectified in order to establish a fully-functional form of class-based affirmative action for the higher education application process before it could be widely implemented in a sustainable manner. Careful consideration would need to be applied, particularly with respect to the specific methodology utilized to calculate an applicant's socioeconomic status, their tools of measurement and assurance of a socioeconomic scheme which is not weighted, as Sanders is criticized by Onwuachi-Willig and Fricke as being. The interaction of race in American society would need to be particularly well-discussed, as race, for all of its social and economic benefits and disadvantages" is expected to evolve so extensively and dramatically in the coming decades.

Although Onwuachi-Willig and Fricke support an overhaul of the considerations used for students seeking admission to law schools and not an overhaul of affirmative action in general, it is the belief of this paper that the authors neglect the changes which will be coming forth with respect to race and race-makeup in the United States of America. An overhaul of any process is lengthy and intensive in order to insure optimal effectiveness and efficiency. To focus so much on race when the minorities and majorities of the current times are expected to be roughly equal by 2050 seems unnecessary and could be perceived as continuing to focus on issues which are slowly losing their relevancy in the United States of America. "Plus factors" and "contextual review", for example, are options capable of being considered by higher education admission committees which allow for a broad understanding and interpretation of race, class, and attributes which would bring diversity to the campus. Diversity, the Supreme Court tells us, within a student body can vary in interpretation, which is a notion fundamental to considerations for affirmative action in higher education for both modern and future applicants.

In this respect, such considerations would likely be applicable in the present to allow for race when necessary, but is malleable enough to allow for class and other unique attributes of applicants in the future. It is the belief of this author that such considerations for affirmative action in higher education must consider not only current situations, but the likely situations of the future as well in order to make the most informed and applicable decision. In this case, there is overwhelming evidence that affirmative action as a whole allows for improved and beneficial diversity in the higher education setting. However, it is not necessary to exclusively focus on race in the admission process utilizing affirmative action. There are many other options to consider, and methodologies to adopt, for the preservation of diversity in higher education environments in the United States of America. These considerations would likely be more relevant to the preservation not only of diversity, but of equality as it pertains to the pursuit of higher education for American citizens. However, in the end and until the higher education providers are legally prohibited from considering race, it remains a viable option for merit in the admission process. Each establishment or entity individually will be most aware of what will or will not contribute to their diversity on campus and in the classrooms. If race will significantly contribute to a campus' diversity it should be a consideration. It is merely worth acknowledging that race will likely cease to be the predominant characteristic of the so-called minorities in coming years and generations. Considering the other characteristics and attributes which can affect diversity in these new environments will be progressive in terms of coming up with legally and socially appropriate and approved policies as they pertain to equality, diversity and affirmative action in higher education admission processes.


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Dunleavy, E., & Gutman, A. Supreme Court to rule on Fisher v. University of Texas: Is Grutter in trouble?. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 50(1), 105-113.

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Harvard Law Review. Fourteenth Amendment - Equal Protection Clause - Public-University Affirmative Action - Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

How to Write Excellent College and University Admissions Essays. Web.

Onwuachi-Willig, A., & Fricke, A. Class, classes, and classic race-baiting: what's in a definition. Denver University Law Review, 88(4), 807-834.

Public School Curriculum and Pedagogy. Custom Written. Online.

Richman, A. End of affirmative action in higher education: twenty-five years in the making, The. Depaul Journal for Social Justice, 4(1), 61-96.

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Author Info
College Admissions Adjunct
USA, Texas

More about Author
College admissions student editor and an lifetime academic affirmative action proponent.

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