Five Facts about Affirmative Action

Written by

Dawn Godbolt
Dawn Godbolt Dr. Dawn Godbolt is a Health Equity Fellow at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, where she focuses on policy and research developments related to the social determinants of health and health equity. She recently finished her Ph.D. in Sociology at Florida State University and is passionate about reducing health disparities in communities of color. William Kay is a National Academy of Social Insurance Intern at the Center for Global Policy Solutions. A rising senior at Carleton College, his interests include income security, social insurance, and wealth-building.

The Trump administration’s decision to investigate affirmative action as a vehicle of reverse racism demonstrates, at best, the sheer lack of understanding the current administration has of the realities of race- and gender-based policies in this country. At its worst, it is a deliberate ploy to undermine the potential human capital of historically marginalized groups.

Trump’s most recent attack targets the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division using the guise of concern for Asian Americans as the reason for investigating affirmative action. However, this insidious plan taps into racial resentment and has the potential to depress the educational attainment of disadvantaged groups, which will affect future employment, earnings, and retirement planning. In an effort to shed light on the positive impact of affirmative action, CGPS has put together 5 myth-busting facts about affirmative action:

  1. White women are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action There is a strong belief that affirmative action primarily benefits black people. In reality, white women are its number one beneficiaries. According to the American Association of University Women, in the years following the implementation of affirmative action into federal law, the rates of women engaged in managerial positions and STEM fields has increased exponentially. Affirmative action has successfully increased access to education and employment for all minorities, but has been particularly beneficial to  white women. According to a 2014 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 49 percent of employed women had jobs in higher paying managerial positions compared to 35 percent of employed African American women and 28 percent of employed Latina women.
  2. Minority applicants are evaluated on merit just like white applicants. Abigail Fisher’s decision to sue the University of Texas for discriminatory practices over the acceptance of one black and four Latino students who were admitted ahead of her did not take into account the 42 white students with lower scores who were also admitted ahead of her, or the 168 rejected black and Latino students whose applications ranked higher than hers. It was based solely on the myth that any white application must hold more value and merit than that of a minority application, despite the numerical evidence. This myth is particularly dangerous as it devalues the intellectual talent of minority students.
  3. Race is sometimes used as one criterion for admission, among many others. The United States Supreme Court ruled race-based quotas to be unconstitutional in 1978 because they violated the Equal Protection Clause. Colleges weigh applications using a variety of measures, including awarding legacy points for students whose family members previously attended the school. This admission tactic disproportionately benefits whites since their parents and other family members are more likely to have attended college, especially at predominantly white institutions. According to a 2004 study of undergraduates at the University of Virginia, 8.84 percent of whites were legacy students compared with 2.96 percent of African American students.
  4. Minority status continues to be a necessary criterion in admissions. Multiple studies demonstrate the continued need for affirmative action in both the university admissions process and the employment hiring process. For example, according to data from UC Berkeley, in the mid-1980s African American students made up over 10 percent of new freshmen. After the 1996 ballot measure banning affirmative action in California public colleges, this number has fallen to around 3 percent. Similarly, the share of Latino students peaked at around 20 percent in 1990 and has fallen to 12 percent. A 2012 study by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University concluded that even if all schools admitted students solely based on high school class rank, diversity might increase modestly at highly selective schools but would still not be representative. Furthermore, minorities still attend college at a significantly lower rate than whites, even when controlling for income. The same study shows that whites are still two to three times as likely as black students to gain admission to highly selective colleges. Affirmative action is still essential for creating a diverse and representative class.
  5. Minority students pay for their higher education. The Brookings Institution reports that students are most likely to excel academically at the most selective institution that will admit them. In other words, the idea of a “mismatch” or that minorities are “free riding” at elite institutions is simply not true. Students are more likely to excel at the most elite institution that they receive admission into, regardless of their background. The notion of a free ride is also misleading, as minority students are more likely to take on student debt than their peers. An Urban Institute study found that, in 2013, 42 percent of African Americans aged 25-55 had student loan debt compared with 28 percent of whites of the same age.

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