Affirmative Action in Higher Education
Affirmative action in higher education admissions was established to help achieve diversity in the student body and provide greater access to higher education for members of historically underrepresented minority groups. Landmark court cases debating affirmative action in higher education admissions have included the _I_ Regents of the University of California v. Bakke_i_ (1978), _I_Hopwood v. Texas_i_ (1996), and the 2003 University of Michigan cases. However, the future of affirmative action in college and university admissions continues to be debated. Some race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action based on racial preferences that have been considered include class rank percentage plans and admissions plans based on economic preferences.
Keywords Affirmative Action; Class Rank; College Admissions; Desegregated; Diversity; Economic Preferences; Ethnicity; First-Generation Status; Higher Education; Minority; Percentage Plans; Race; Race-Exclusive Programs; Race-Neutral Alternatives; Racial Preferences; Segregated
Patitu and Terrell (1998) explained that the goal of affirmative action in higher education has been to "increase the number of people from underrepresented groups in higher education and to diversify colleges and universities" (p. 41). As a concept, affirmative action first emerged in 1961 in President John F. Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 as a means to end discrimination in government employment and contracting (Shuford, 1998). Executive Order 10925 called for government contractors to voluntarily enact affirmative action in the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of minorities (Kolling, 1998). The voluntary nature of the proposal proved ineffective and it was later enforced under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Kolling, 1998).
In implementing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin, the federal government fought to have higher education institutions put affirmative action plans into place (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). These plans were to apply to all aspects of public and private higher education operations, including student admissions, staff hiring, financial aid, and dormitory assignments (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). Institutions who did not abide by the law faced withdrawal of federal funds granted to them (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). Especially in recent years, affirmative action policies in college admissions have tended to be at the forefront of debate. Affirmative action policies in admissions sought "to bring to campuses people from various groups previously overlooked as sources for the student population" (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997, p. 400). More often than not these people included members of minority groups (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997).
The question of how to appropriately and legally institute affirmative action programs in college and university admissions became particularly pointed in 1978. In that year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). In the case, the special admissions program that reserved sixteen out of one hundred slots for members of historically underserved minority groups at the University of California at Davis's Medical School was called into question (Kolling, 1998). The Supreme Court ruled that the program equated to a quota system, was unlawful, and should be struck down (Kolling, 1998). At the same time, the Court also ruled that some race-conscious admissions programs could be permissible "if the procedure entailed the same process of individualized comparison for all applicants without systematically excluding any group from consideration" (Kolling, 1998, p. 20). Overall, while higher education institutions could consider race or ethnicity in admissions, colleges and universities could not implement what were in effect quota systems (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). Essentially, higher education institutions were not to discriminate against minorities but they also could not have policies that were akin to "reverse discrimination" (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997).
Two cases involving the University of Michigan in 2003 have also received a great deal of attention for the implications they have on the consideration of race in admissions. In the Supreme Court's decisions, the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School (Grutter v. Bollinger) was deemed acceptable while the undergraduate admission policy of the University of Michigan (Gratz v. Bollinger) was not. The Law School's policy was essentially deemed acceptable because it encapsulated a "holistic approach to admissions" (Eckes, 2004, p. 54) in which race was just one of many different characteristics considered to achieve a diverse student body.
In Fisher v. University of Texas (2013), the high court remanded a challenge to affirmative action back to a lower court for further consideration. The U.S. District Court upheld the university’s race-conscious admissions policy, but the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court had not applied the standard of "strict scrutiny" of such policies established in the Grutter and Bakke cases.
Role of Affirmative Action in Admissions
For all applicants, it is important for America's higher education institutions to be accessible and not be bastions of privilege. In discussing admission preferences for underrepresented minorities, Bowen, Kurzweil, Tobin, and Pichler (2005) also stressed that "a diverse student body provides educational benefits to all students" (p. 167). Students benefit from a diverse campus because they are "being prepared to be members of a global community, having their intercultural communication skills enhanced, becoming aware of and more sensitive to cultural differences, being exposed to views unlike their own, and being allowed to confront and discuss multicultural issues" (Patitu & Terrell, 1998, p. 46).
Additionally, Shuford (1998) noted that research findings support the contention that students benefit in many ways when there is institutional commitment to diversity. For instance, students' cognitive development and satisfaction with their college experience have found to be enhanced when diversity is a priority (Astin, 1993, as cited in Shuford, 1998).
The recent Supreme Court cases have found diversity to be "a compelling state interest in education" (Eckes, 2004, p. 48). Likewise, Massey (2004) outlined three compelling reasons to support affirmative action. First, Massey (2004) noted that community choice arguments would indicate that the lessening of discrimination can only occur when "'fairness' is guaranteed by building it into laws, procedures, guidelines, and organizational practices" (p. 792). Additionally, basic principles of what is fair and reasonable in a just society as well as the "price" most people are willing to pay for future benefits indicate strong support for affirmative action policies (Massey, 2004).
While many support the concept of affirmative action in higher education admissions, there are others who do not, and there have been varied arguments against it. For instance, some argue that affirmative action serves to discriminate against members of ethnic and racial groups it does not protect (Shuford, 1998). Others say it causes the lowering of standards and the admission of individuals who are less qualified than others (Shuford, 1998). There have also been arguments made that it victimizes the groups it intends to serve (Shuford, 1998).
Phases of Affirmative Action in Admissions
Nichols, Ferguson, and Fisher (2005) discussed Dickason's phases of affirmative action in college admission. The three phases include:
• Obligatory affirmative action,
• Voluntary affirmative action, and
• Tempered affirmative action (Dickason, 2001, as cited in Nichols, Ferguson, & Fisher, 2005).
Obligatory affirmative action describes the period (1960s to late 1970s) during which affirmative action was mandated by the federal government for any higher education institutions receiving federal funds (Dickason, 2001, as cited in Nichols, Ferguson, & Fisher, 2005). Voluntary affirmative action (1980 to 1995) was ushered in after the Bakke decision when institutions' admissions plans based on racial preferences began to be challenged (Dickason, 2001, as cited in Nichols, Ferguson, & Fisher, 2005). Finally, Nichols, Ferguson, and Fisher (2005) explained tempered affirmative action (current phase) as the time in which "contradictions existing in legal rulings and precedents and agencies outside of the college and university may dictate what measures are mandated to select students" (p. 25).
Implications of Recent Supreme Court Rulings
Regarding the current phase of tempered affirmative action, Gardner (2007) noted that "in the aftermath of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, lower court cases, and threatened lawsuits by anti-affirmative action groups, universities are opening minority programs to non-minorities" (¶ 2). Much of the drive to open up minority programs came after the 2003 Michigan decisions in which the Court ruled that race could be considered in creating a diverse environment but must not be the only factor considered and could not be reviewed in a "rigid or mechanical" way (Gardner, 2007, ¶ 4). According to the Supreme Court's ruling in Grutter, race-neutral alternatives must also be considered first before deciding to use race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions decisions (Przypyszny & Tromble, 2007). However, while schools should consider race neutral options to meet their goals, they do not need to try every such plan (Eckes, 2004).
After the Michigan decisions, colleges and universities grew concerned that financial aid programs and other programs they had in place based on race would fall under attack as an extension of the...
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