Affirmative Action: Bridging the Racial Gap in Education

by Tiffany Chou

What you can do:

Learn about Cornell University’s commitments to equal opportunity and affirmative action.

The Coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election have brought issues of educational inequality to the forefront. Existing achievement gaps between white students and their Black and Hispanic counterparts are projected to be exacerbated by remote learning. Black and Hispanic students are projected to lose 10.3 and 9.2 months of learning, respectively. In comparison, white students will likely only lose 6.0 months of learning [1]. In California, Proposition 16, which sought to reinstate affirmative action in California’s public universities, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters, with 56.5% voting against the measure [2, 3]. The failure of a deeply blue state to support affirmative action shows its continued controversy in the United States.

Affirmative action measures were first introduced in federal legislation by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required employers and admissions officers to stop discriminating against African Americans in their hiring and admissions decisions [4]. 

Since then, several Supreme Court cases have upheld affirmative action in the United States. In 1978, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke examined the case of Allan Bakke, a white man who was rejected twice by the University of California Medical School at Davis [5]. Bakke argued that he was rejected solely on the basis of race, which violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the University of California’s racial quota system for admitting applicants was unconstitutional, but that race could be one of many factors considered in the admissions process, establishing a standard of “strict scrutiny” [5]. Fisher v Texas (2013) involved the case of Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was rejected from the University of Texas, who argued that the consideration of race in UT’s admissions system was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. In this case, the court upheld affirmative action, with the University of Texas’ admissions system meeting the standard of strict scrutiny [6]. More recently, Harvard University’s college admissions process has been brought to the forefront with Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. In 2019, the Boston District Court upheld Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program on all counts, but the case has been appealed to the First Circuit and is awaiting further judgement [11].

On a state level, there are currently 9 states with affirmative action bans in place [7, 8]. After these bans went into effect, it was found that there was a statistically significant decline of 23.3% in the levels of affirmative action practiced by highly selective colleges compared to states that did not institute a ban, where admissions processes stayed the same [9].

Affirmative action has been shown to have many positive outcomes for students of color and has led to progress in promoting social mobility and greater equity. Currently, there is a large gap between the number of college-age Black and Hispanic students in the United States and the number of those students actually attending top universities, even with the help of affirmative action [10]. Without these policies in place, this gap only widens. In the Harvard lawsuit, research found that adopting a race-blind admissions process would have the greatest gains for white students, whose share of the admitted class would increase from 40 percent to 48 percent [11]. Opponents of affirmative action argue that it results in admissions for under-qualified students, who are less likely to succeed at more selective universities. However, low-income students attending complete their degrees at higher rates and earn almost as much as wealthy students post-graduation, showing that there are positive social and economic mobility outcomes [12]. In regards to employment outcomes, affirmative action has been found to increase the representation of minorities and women in the labor market with little evidence that their labor market performance is weaker, even if their credentials are weaker [14].

Another argument against affirmative action is that colleges should shift away from race-based admissions in favor of a class-based admission system [13]. A class-based system fails to acknowledge that students of different races, regardless of their class status, tend to be treated differently than their white counterparts. For example, even when test scores and academic achievement levels are similar, Black students are more likely to be assigned to lower-track, nonacademic classes and less likely to be recommended for gifted programs [15] It is evident that despite its weaknesses, affirmative action is currently the most effective way of reducing the racial achievement gap in the United States.