Diversity Through Affirmative Action

Similar to the Common Application, early and need-blind admissions, affirmative action as an admissions policy started to gain attention in the late 1970s/1980s. However, affirmative action deviated in how it gained notoriety as an admissions strategy. A case brought before the Supreme Court, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), simultaneously struck down the use of racial quota systems or race-based admissions program and stated, “the Equal Protection Clause permits race to be one factor, among many, in an admissions program.” The constitutionality of considering race in the admissions process would be challenged – and upheld as permissible under the law – two more times in the Supreme Court 1, though, the extent to which race could be considered in the admissions process became increasingly narrow.

First, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) established a narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions and the educational benefits stemming from a diverse student body is a “compelling government interest”. Second, Fisher v. Texas (2013) found that as long as the consideration of race in admissions could withstand the standard of strict scrutiny. 2 As a follow up to Fisher v. Texas (2013), Fisher v. Texas (2016) ruled that, “previous precedent had established that educational diversity is a compelling interest as long as it is expressed as a concrete and precise goal that is neither a quota of minority students nor an amorphous idea of diversity.”

Affirmative Action Defined

According to Cornell’s Legal Law Institute, affirmative action is defined as, “a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future.” This definition refers affirmative action as it relates to employment and educational opportunities. While “it typically imposes remedies against discrimination on the basis of, at the very least, race, creed, color, and national origin, it extends to include, but is not limited to, age, gender, and people with disabilities.”

In the remaining sections of this post, we explore three aspects of affirmative action. First, we look at benefits of race-based admissions policies. Second, we balance the benefits against other ways by which universities can achieve diversity. Third, we consider affirmative action in the Georgetown context.

Race-Based Affirmative Action

While still a consideration in the admissions process, the past 40 years has shaped affirmative action as an admissions policy in an increasingly narrow way. Bowen and Bok (1998) take an in-depth look at the impact of race sensitive admissions policies in their book, The Shape of the River. They note very early on that one of the biggest misconceptions regarding the number of colleges and universities that are able to consider race in the admissions process, which, they note is far fewer than expected. They estimate that only 20 to 30 percent of four-year institutions fall in this category, this estimate is consistent with Kane (1998) and Arcidiacono (2005).

Arcidiacono, Aucejo, Fang & Spenner (2011) write that, “Proponents of racial preferences argue that race-conscious admissions are important both for helping minorities overcome the legacy of institutionalized discrimination and for majority students to receive the benefits from diverse classrooms.” Literature makes the argument that diversity on campus benefits all students, both on individual levels and larger community levels. For example, students who had greater exposure to diversity were more likely to show higher levels of intellectual engagement, active thinking, and motivation, Gurin (1999). Additionally, research indicates that socializing across race and discussing racial/ethnic issues have a positive effect on students’ retention, overall satisfaction with college, intellectual self-concept, and social self-concept, Chang (1996). In addition to benefiting the individual, cross-racial interactions have been shown to influence the amount of acceptance students reported for people from other cultures, the rate at which they participated in community service programs, and the amount of growth they exhibited in other areas of civic responsibility, Bowen and Bok (1998).

Arcidiacono, Lovenheim & Zhu (2014) outline two main arguments against affirmative action. A defining characteristic of affirmative action is the  transfer of resources from students in the majority to underrepresented minority, which, the authors note, “the resource distortions associated with these policies can harm both majority and minority students.” As such, the first argument rests on students in the majority feeling like they are unfairly treated due to these policies preferencing under-represented minority students. Kane (1998) counters this noting that the true cost of affirmative action is overstated. He likens this overstatement to the policy around parking spots reserved for disabled drivers:

“Suppose that one parking space in front of a popular restaurant is reserved for disabled drivers. Many of the non-disabled drivers who pass by the space while circling the parking lot in search of a place to park may be tempted to think that they would have an easier time finding a space if the space had not been reserved. Although eliminating the space would have only a minuscule effect on the average parking search for non-disabled drivers, the cumulative cost perceived by each passing driver is likely to exceed the true cost simply because people have a difficult time thinking about small probability events.”

From the perspective of the under-represented minority students, the second argument against affirmative action is what Arcidiacono et al. (2014) call “mismatch”, which entails admissions preferences possibly harming the students who are the beneficiaries of affirmative action admissions policies. They define mismatching as, “not simply referring to the phenomenon in which under-represented minority students come to college with less academic preparation than his or her peers, but the situation in which a student is matched to a school that doesn’t optimize his or her chances for success.” Similar to undermatching, as outlined in Hoxby and Avery (2013, mismatching occurs when students don’t have access to all of the information they need to decide what school they are going to attend. Sander (2004) contends that these students would perform better in the absences of affirmative action admissions policies. In other words, the effect of affirmative action admissions policies could produce an inverse relationship between the academic performance of the beneficiaries and working towards the goal of increased campus diversity.

Workable Alternatives

Among selective institutions, it’s clear that both socio-economic and racial disparities in campus populations persist. Reardon, Baker & Klasik (2012) explore patterns of enrollment and found that in terms of socio-economic standing, students whose families ranked in the top 20% were seven to eight times more likely to enroll in these types of schools than their counterparts in the lower 20%. No matter where they fall on the socio-economic ladder, however, black and Hispanic students are still two to three times less likely to be admitted into the schools in question when compared with their white peers. This is consistent with a 2015 New York Times article that reported that within these highly selective institutions, levels of racial diversity have, for the most part, either fallen or remained stagnant over the past 35 years.

For institutions concerned with addressing questions of equitable admission practices, there are several methods available, in addition to race-based affirmative action, including Top Ten Percent rules, socio-economic-based affirmative action, and targeted recruiting.

Currently, public institutions in California and Texas follow the Top Ten Percent rule, which essentially means a portion of their admissions are based off the top 10% of students within individual high schools. Reardon et al. (2012) observe that while this policy does yield an undergraduate population which is slightly more diverse than the current cross section, it still fails to create a pool of admitted students which comes even remotely close to representing the actual racial profile of high school graduates in a given year. This is especially when compared with race-based affirmative action.

Reardon, Baker & Klasik (2017), measure the abilities of socio-economic-based affirmative action and targeted recruiting strategies to produce racial equality on college campuses. They found that alone, neither of these strategies generates a level of racial diversity within a campus that race-based affirmative action does. They also found, however, that when used in tandem, socio-economic-based affirmative action and targeted recruiting yield only marginally less racial diversity. Thus, while it cannot replicate the levels of racial diversity produced by race-based affirmative action and thus is not a viable substitute, the combination of socio-economic-based affirmative action and targeted recruiting could serve as a good complement for a school looking to generate diversity within its student population. This argument is substantiated in Bowen, Kurzweil & Tobin (2005), Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, which focuses on the relationship between socio-economic status and higher ed but also makes the case for why race-based affirmative action policies should remain in place at highly selective institutions..

Georgetown and Affirmative Action

Georgetown has been acutely aware of the institutional and educational benefits of student diversity on campus and has included race and more recently, socio-economic status into its affirmative action admissions policy for sometime now. This is evident to Georgetown’s commitment to a holistic admissions process, which, “is a university admissions strategy that assesses an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores”, Urban Universities for HEALTH (2014). In other words, Georgetown makes a concerted effort to be as comprehensive when reviewing each application. “It is designed to help universities consider a broad range of factors reflecting the applicant’s academic readiness, contribution to the incoming class, and potential for success both in school and later as a professional. This means that in addition to GPA and test scores, Georgetown’s holistic review process includes an in-person interview, reviewal of personal statements and letters of recommendations, as well as considering race, socio-economic and first gen status to ensure that selects a truly diverse set of applicants.

As we’ve mentioned before, ensuring a diverse applicant pool and student population on campus is beneficial for the Georgetown community, however, that is only half of the story. The other half relates to equity of experience and being certain that the diversity of resources on campus match the diversity of the student population. Equity of experience is the true litmus test for a school like Georgetown engaging in a holistic admissions process strategy. As schools consider ways to increase equity of experience on their campuses, it may be advantageous to explore how they might  empower students as they, for example, navigate the realities of a college or university’s hidden curriculum.

1. There are, however, notable examples at the state level where affirmative action policies were curtailed: Washington State, California, Florida, and Georgia. Underpinning a state’s ability to ban race-conscious affirmative action policies in admissions in part stems from Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014) that ruled not on the constitutionality of affirmative action but rather affirmed that voters had the right to choose if their state could ban affirmative action programs (See Grodsky and Kalogrides (2007) for more information).

2. Affirmative action admissions policies must withstand strict scrutiny, meaning colleges have to prove affirmative action was the only way to accomplish its diversity goals. 


Mark Joy: Senior Research & Programs Associate for The Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education 

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