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Understanding Affirmative Action in Higher Education

History of Affirmative Action text with a pen icon below the words
What is Affirmative Action? text with a gavel icon below the words
Impact of Affirmative Action text with a graduation cap icon below the words
Affirmative action has had a stressful last two decades. 

This is particularly true in the world of higher education. When it comes to who goes to what college, affirmative action's relationship with The White House has been on-and-off with each new administration. Eight states have banned it from their borders just to replace it with its less effective sister, race-neutral admissions policies. Powerful people keep accusing it of being “reverse discrimination” in disguise. The courts have been tolerant thus far, but with all the gossip surrounding its reputation, who knows how long that’s going to last? Because the sad truth is, despite all this controversy over its existence, affirmative action remains painfully misunderstood. 


While colleges and universities can still use affirmative action in their admissions processes, the practice has been made into a cultural sticking point in recent decades. Opponents have organized legal and political challenges, one-after-another, to dismantle the use of affirmative action, yet the discourse around it all remains shockingly misinformed.

Gallup has found repeatedly that the way you ask people about affirmative action can dramatically swing their feelings about it.

As recently as 2019, 65% of Americans approved of universities using “affirmative action” to support racial minorities — and 73% said race should not even be a factor in college admissions. Now, just to be clear, affirmative action plainly means allowing the consideration of an applicant’s race in the admissions decision, so it seems something has gone wrong with the branding process. 

To be fair, the functional hodgepodge of affirmative action policy has been repeatedly transformed over the decades through the roiling landscape of politics, legislation, and lawsuits. It can be hard to keep up, and unless you're some kind of higher ed expert, most people don't. 

That’s where this project comes in. The Shakiest Affirmation aims to offer a focused overview of affirmative action in higher education, including the basic history, application, and impacts of the policy. It is my hope that this type of comprehensive introductory resource can better inform conversations on affirmative action moving forward. 

This project is best viewed on desktop.

History of Affirmative Action


8 states

Banned Affirmative Action

Almost all of them were approved by state voters. As of 2014, those stated covered 29% of all U.S. high school students.

3 states

Instituted percentage plans for their admissions

These plans are considered a "race-neutral" workaround to affirmative action, and came in direct response to each state's ban.

5 cases

Have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court

The court has repeatedly reaffirmed the use of race in admissions while also chipping away at the application.

How the History Fits Together


What is Affirmative Action?


For all the ruckus it causes, affirmative action is probably not as prominent as you think. It’s also probably not what you think.

To reiterate: Affirmative action is a set of guidelines, policies, and laws giving special consideration to historically marginalized groups. But beyond that? It would be quite difficult to explain what it looks like in practice like because every institution practices it differently — and often secretly. The so-called “Black Box” of admissions systems has drawn increased scrutiny over the years as stakeholders puzzle out exactly how different universities, especially the elite ones, decide which students to accept. That problem extends far beyond the consideration of applicants’ race and ethnicity, but it certainly doesn’t help clarify what affirmative action means in practice.


To counter SFFA’s allegations of Asian discrimination, Harvard was forced to reveal the “trade secrets” of their admissions process, showing that race was usually made a contextual detail of the applicant’s overall life story. But even then, Harvard’s consideration of race would look entirely different from another institution. 

That doesn’t stop people from forming some popular, and inaccurate, conceptions of how they think affirmative action works, however. As such, it may be more helpful to explain exactly what affirmative action is not.

It is not a quota system.

Regents v. Bakke (1978) struck down the use of strict racial quotas. Universities cannot set aside seats for a certain ethnic group or use two separate criteria for minority and non-minority groups.

It is not a points system.

Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) struck down the automatic addition of “points” to an applicant’s application based on their race. For example: A process where every Black applicant gets an automatic +20 points toward a passing admittance score of 120 points is illegal.

It is not a remedy for past racism.

While the policy was initially instituted as a way to make up for structural racism and oppression, the Supreme Court in Bakke found that it was not “a compelling purpose sufficient to meet strict scrutiny,” especially when it disadvantages those who did not participate in the past oppression. 

As such, race can only be used for the compelling purpose of creating diversity in the student body. Much research has shown that diversity creates its own benefits

What is Strict Scrutiny? The highest standard of legal evaluation to determine if a law is constitutional. To pass strict scrutiny, a law must a) further a "compelling governmental interest," and b) be narrowly tailored for that interest.

It does not make admissions “race-based.”

The policy of affirmative action is race-conscious. However, race can only be “one element in a range of factors a university properly may consider in attaining the goal of a heterogeneous student body,” the Supreme Court decided in Bakke

The courts reaffirmed this in Grutter v. Bollinger when they upheld a race-conscious admissions system because it still ensured all other diversity factors were “meaningfully considered alongside race in admissions decisions.” Factors like travelling abroad or speaking multiple languages were weighted as “diversity factors,” even more so than race. In Fisher v. Texas (2013, 2016), the Supreme Court emphasized the university’s holistic review as an acceptable way to incorporate race.

What is Holistic Review? There is no agreed upon definition. The University of Michigan School of Education found that when institutions say they judge applicants with “holistic review,” that can range from just reading the applicant’s entire file to reading between the lines of that file.

Gif of a simple clipart judge banging their gavel

Applying Affirmative Action

  1. Institutions must provide a secure explanation for why they want a diverse student body.

  2. Affirmative action must be the only way to achieve that diversity.

  3. The use of race must be narrowly tailored to meet this goal and still be part of a larger, holistic review process.


Does all of this sound strict? But wait! I almost forgot affirmative action’s most subtle anti-trait:

It Is Not a Widespread Policy

Out of 993 selective universities and colleges, only 35% of said they considered race in the admissions process as of 2014. That’s a far fall from the 1994 peak of affirmative action when 59% of institutions did so, according to a study done by Daniel Hirschman and Ellen Berrey, published in Sociological Science.

About 15% of the drop can be attributed to state bans, but the majority came from private institutions choosing to discard affirmative action of their own volition. The study pinpoints the 1994 district case for Hopwood v. Texas (1996) as the regression point against what, at that point, was the steady institutionalization of affirmative action.


Anti-affirmative action cases have targeted elite and highly competitive institutions due to their limited enrollment, creating a spillover effect of conservative political backlash that the study’s authors say have made middle-status colleges and universities “quietly [back] away from considering race.” Ironically, the elite schools challenged in the courts have only reaffirmed their commitment to affirmative action.

Impact of Affirmative Action


None of its limitations means affirmative action is not significant, however. Numerous studies have shown banning the consideration of race in admissions instantly cuts the number of underrepresented minorities enrolled. Race-neutral replacements such as using socioeconomic status, percentage plans, or increased outreach do help, but they have not raised minority enrollment diversity back to affirmative action proportions in practice (or they require those new factors to be weighed much stronger than race or enroll less capable students). 

This project does not seek to analyze the data on the subject partly because it’s simply been done so extensively. 


These are just a few of the examinations done on the impact of affirmative action, but the results, nuanced as they may be, all point in the same direction: affirmative action works. Diversity is far from its only contribution to racial justice, but as a policy often implemented to increase representation of disadvantaged groups, it does exactly what it was meant to do and it does it more effectively than other variations of it. 

Affirmative Action Works — And Maybe That's The Real Problem


Affirmative action in higher education elicits a visceral controversy despite its limited scope in practice. Why? Perhaps because education is one area where we expect the American Dream to shine. After all, few things feel more meritocratic than standardized testing and identical application filings. 

But research suggests other reasons may come into play. 

University of Miami sociology professor Frank L. Samson released a study in 2013 showing that white Californian’s adjust their conceptions of academic merit based on what racial group they perceive white applicants to be competing against. 

When Black Americans were primed as the main competition, study participants were much more likely to emphasize the importance of GPA in college admissions. When Asian Americans were primed as the main competition, study participants de-emphasized GPA.

“This finding weakens the argument that White commitment to meritocracy is purely based on principle, since the importance given to particular meritocratic criteria ... varies depending upon the outgroups under consideration and the extent of the group threat they pose to Whites.” — Samson, “Multiple Group Threat and Malleable White Attitudes Towards Academic Merit”

Applying a hypothesis of racial threat theory, Southern Methodist University education policy professor Dominique J. Baker published in a study that there has been a negatively correlating relationship between the white enrollment share at a state’s flagship universities and the probability a state will enact a ban. 

Or put more simply: when it appears a state’s white students will have to compete for their spots in selective colleges, states are more primed to pass an affirmative action ban.

As the proportion of nonwhite minorities grows in undergrad enrollment, so does the probability of affirmative action getting banned. Graph correlating percentage of nonwhite enrollment with chance of affirmative action ban.
Graph showing marginal probablity of affirmative action ban. That marginal probablity spikes right when nonwhite enrollment overtakes white as the majority. Marginal measures change of one variable in relation to another.   Ex: This chunk represents a 1% increase chance in a ban when the minority enrollment share increases from 0% to 10%.

“The analysis lends support to the theory of racial threat; namely, that the White population of the state, possibly feeling threatened by the dwindling number of enrollment spots for White students, reacts in a way that is negative for the minority population, by adopting a state affirmative action ban.” — Baker, “Pathways to Racial Equity in Higher Education: Modeling the Antecedents of State Affirmative Action Bans”



What is Racial Threat Theory? It is the concept that as the proportion of black or racial minority groups increase, the dominant racial group will enact greater social control over them because they see the minority group as becoming a criminal, economic, or political threat.

In the context of racial threat theory, Baker suggests that as nonwhite enrollment increases, white people begin to see nonwhite students as competitors to a limited resource: access to the state flagship university. Specifically when white students start to look like they may fall out the majority of that institution’s enrollment, and white voters react negatively by more likely banning affirmative action. 

The correlations of course do not prove causation. However, their strength and consistency makes them worth noticing, especially when trying to understand the complex political controversy around affirmative action. It would be disingenuous to ignore the persisting role of race and racism in this discussion given how affirmative action does significantly increase minority enrollment at competitive institutions and that in itself influences attitudes toward the “meritocracy.”

Understanding Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is complicated.

It’s demonized. It’s lauded. It’s enduring.

And how we think about it matters. 

Read more into the sources for this piece.

The Shakiest Affirmation | Samantha Ye | © March 2021

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