The Great Debate I: Public Opinion


Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Affirmative action is one of the most controversial topic in higher education concerning race and ethnicity of student populations and university diversity policies. I’m not arguing one way or the other because I am torn about present practices and, hopefully, I can show you this struggle in my post. However, I am biased because I have benefitted from affirmative action policies for being a black young woman from rural Ohio. So I personally understand the benefits and the costs of such policies in higher education. I hope to present facts so that you can form your own mind about diversity and affirmative action.

I have tried to include sound research that uses credibly accepted methodologies to show that student body diversity leads to a wide range of educational outcomes. It also provides substantial evidence in support of our argument that the promotion of educational diversity is a compelling governmental interest.

Universities should be concerned of having a critical mass of students and not a rigid quota system to uphold their mission statements of promoting educational diversity. For example, many viewpoints surrounding affirmative action view diversity as a benefit in higher education; yet, they disagree about the need for affirmative action. Aguirre and Martinez (2007) states, “The word diversity in discussions of higher education often results in technical arguments about affirmative action and moral discussions about merit” (pg. 4). Diversity and affirmative action are two separate entities where diversity is the moral ethic of inclusion in the campus community while affirmative action represents the policies of equity in place at colleges and universities. In this blog I want to show the socio-historical policy, ethics, and economics of affirmative action in higher education.

Historically policies and laws had been passed to allow all students access to opportunities in education; however, it wasn’t until the Brown vs. Board of Education that reversed the separate but equal decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson in public education. The government also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the civil rights movement further changed higher education. Fed up with the empty promises of equality, Americans came together from different backgrounds to demonstrate and demand change in society, specifically higher education. Aguirre and Martinez (2007) state, “Affirmative action is rooted in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, which produced the most important civil rights laws of the twentieth century and led to conclusions both by enforcement agencies and the courts that race-conscious civil rights policies were necessary in a number of areas of entrenched racial inequality… Judges and other officials concluded that the only way to achieve equal opportunity was to plan for it, to explicitly consider race when necessary to break segregation and exclusion, and to measure the results” (pg. 5) After years of policies that were not enforced or lacked the power to change institutional discrimination change had finally come… or did it?

Another landmark in setting affirmation action policy in admissions is Justice Powell’s opinion in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case. The case served as a, “Catalyst for public debates and opinion about the responsibility institutions of higher education have in responding to racial and ethnic changes in the U.S. population” (Aguirre & Martinez, 2007, pg. 4). Then discussions on diversity in higher education became focused on how institutions of higher education responded to the increase in admission of racial minorities. For the sake of promoting diversity in higher education, ethnic and racial diversity is only one of many factors to be considered in college admission when it serves the purpose of achieving a diverse student body and overcoming the present effects of past discrimination. Both serve the interest of the nation. Aguirre & Martinez (2007) state, “Gratz affirmed the pursuit of diversity in higher education as an ongoing interest in higher education, and Grutter supported the use of race to achieve diversity in higher education (pg. 8).”

Universities bears the burden of showing a “strong basis in evidence” to support its claim that promoting educational diversity is a compelling governmental interest. The Gurin (2000) report from the University of Michigan Gratz and Grutter cases supports the compelling interest in promoting educational diversity and, more importantly, the report is useful and reliable evidence documenting the positive effects of educational diversity. Since state government may serve as the trustees of some state universities then the mission of the school must serve the interests of the state and nation. Therefore, university officials feel that the university’s population should reflect the nation’s especially in racial/ethnic makeup.

Expert reports by researchers such as Patricia Gurin, Gary Orfield, Derek Bok, David Chambers, and Gundemann document the educational benefits of student body diversity is substantial and a compelling governmental interest without the use of quotas. In short, “Student body diversity can promote learning outcomes, democratic values and civic engagement, and preparation for a diverse society and workforce – goals that fall squarely within the basic mission of most universities.” pg. 10. Gurin analyzed three sources for her report: national data collected from over 9300 students at 200 colleges and universities; the Michigan Student Study containing survey data collected from 1300 undergraduate University of Michigan students; and data drawn from a study in the Intergroup Relations, Community, and Conflict class at the University of Michigan. The Gurin report reported significant and consistent results across all three data sets. Gurin concludes that “students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills.

She states more specifically that “structural diversity” – the racial and ethnic composition of the student body – leads to institutional transformations that provide the opportunity for “classroom diversity” – the incorporation of knowledge about diverse groups into the curriculum (including ethnic studies courses) – as well as “informal interactional diversity” – the opportunity to interact with students from diverse backgrounds in the broad, campus environment. These diversity experiences are in turn linked to several positive learning and democracy outcomes.

Gurin was able to conduct research with undergraduate students. She found that students who interacted with students from diverse backgrounds had an increased sense of community and shared interest with other racial/ethnic groups. Other findings show that students who are able to experience diversity are also more likely to be involved and engage in experiential learning such as extracurricular activities, community service, study abroad, etc. This is important because the mission of most universities is to help students become active global citizens in a pluralistic and cosmopolitan society. These traits are also important in the job market as students reported that the diversity they were able to experience helped them adjust to study abroad, internships, and/or research assistantships.

Also Gundemann (2001) emphasizes the importance of “critical mass,” “The need for students to feel safe and comfortable and serves as a counter to the lack of safety or comfort felt when one finds oneself a ‘solo’ or ‘minority of one’(pg. 268).” Critical mass implies that, “enough students to overcome the silencing effect of being isolated in the classroom by ethnicity, race, gender, [etc.]. Enough students to provide safety for expressing views (Gundemann, 2001, pg. 268). The understanding of “critical mass” in State University’s race-conscious admission policy recognizes the harms that accrue from having only token numbers of minority students within its student body. Many researchers have found the dangers of tokenism as racial isolation, alienation, and stereotyping. Therefore, the university strives to admit enough students to represent varied viewpoints and perspectives within underrepresented groups. As stated in Ancheta and Edley’s Grutter Amicus Brief (2004), “Critical mass promotes the notion of intra-group diversity, which undermines the stereotype that all students within a group have identical experiences and possess identical viewpoints (pg. 25).” Ancheta and Edley (2004) continue, “The dangers of tokenism are especially apparent when one considers the actual number of students enrolled, rather than the percentages (pg. 29).”

Ancheta and Edley’s Grutter Amicus Brief (2004) states that, “Under Gurin’s statistical model there should be “interaction” between structural diversity and diversity experience variables (pg. 11).” In other words, Gurin is trying to show that diversity experience variables are more effective at higher levels of minority enrollment. Therefore, a critical mass of minority underrepresented students is needed to fulfill the goals of edicational diversity. Ancheta and Edley (2004) continue that, “Structural diversity affects the number of students who will have the diverse experiences and gain educational benefits, not the magnitude of the effects. The effects of diversity on hundreds of thousands of students in higher education can, over time, be substantial (pg. 10).”

Research and court records show that race-neutral policies are not as effective as race-conscious policies in promoting educational diversity. State university has considered race-neutral alternatives, such as not considering race on the application, in its policy but they were to no avail. Other race-neutral alternatives like considering class or economic disadvantage fail to promote the same levels of educational diversity as race-conscious admission policies. As researchers and experts have reported, race-neutral alternatives, “would substantially reduce the number of underrepresented minority students in the student body and increase the occurrence of segregated learning spaces and social settings. State University had also implemented pre-admission and post-admission recruitment events; yet, again they were found inadequate. The Wightman (1997) study found that, “None of the models employing race-neutral factors, including socio-economic status were as effective as race-conscious admission policies (pg. 39).” There has been shown a negative impact of race-neutral admission policies on minority enrollments in state universities where race-conscious admission policies were eliminated (Ancheta and Edley, 2004). Also race-neutral policies also failed in states where there was previously race-conscious admission policies (Ancheta and Edley, 2004).

The Ford Foundation in 1998 commissioned a survey, as part of a campus diversity initiative, to communicate the value of diversity in higher education. The survey’s results found widespread support for college/university efforts to diversify its campuses (Lurie, 1998). “The majority states that a diverse student body on college campuses has a positive effect and doesn’t weaken the college environment. However, participants also indicated that diversity is a significant challenge and viewed diversity education as a means for admitting and graduating unqualified students in higher education” (pg. 9). From the Ford Foundation’s study, “the American public believes that colleges and universities have a responsibility to promote diversity initiatives in American society” (Aguirre & Martinez, pg. 10). One way is to prepare students to function in a more diverse society and in a more diverse workplace. Yet how can initiatives be designed to address concerns about diversity in higher education, when most oppose the use of race in college admissions. The Gallup Organization composed another survey in 2003 which asked people to evaluate their views on whether “merit” or “race/ethnicity” should be used as a selection factor in college admissions (Gallup, 2003). Overall, this can be seen as reluctance or resistance to support diversity which is mostly favored by the public. “Institutions of higher education must develop and promote responses to diversity that communicate to society their recognition of changes taking place in society. Moreover, the organizational culture in higher education, however, often resists change because it perceives it as a threat to existing values and beliefs” (Aguirre & Martinez, pg. 16).

There are many differences in opinion about civil rights that occur along the racial lines. A national New York Times/CBS News poll in 1997 found that, “35 percent of whites but 80 percent of blacks thought that affirmative action should be ‘continued for the foreseeable future.’ Fifty percent of whites compared to 14 percent of Blacks thought that such programs should simply “be abolished” (Orfield, 2001, pg. 24). A 1997 Time/CNN national poll of teenagers showed that just 17 percent of whites believed that standardized tests were biased, compared to 40 percent of black teens. 76 percent of young whites but only 55 percent of young blacks thought that U.S. race relations would ‘ever get better'” (Orfield, 2001, pg. 24). Orfield (2001) states, “Laws do not enforce themselves and attitudes about difficult social issues tend to last and to have a continuing impact… The court decisions assuming that the burden of history has been lifted and that race no longer matters in American society assume a kind of sudden and irreversible change for which our history of race relations offers little support.” (pg. 10).

Privilege still exists and does not produce genuine equity. It is evident in the differences of cultural capital among different races which I will discuss in part III. There are other arguments in regards to admissions should focus primarily on allowing poor and low SES students to benefit from affirmative action admission policies. However, under this policy students from poor, low SES backgrounds would be disproportionally European and Asian Americans (primarily immigrants coming from professional backgrounds) (Orfield, 2001, pg. 26). Then only one aspect of diversity would be achieved but again excluding other populations that require special accommodations in the college admission process. Race/ethnicity is not class and class is not race/ethnicity.

The public (from the surveys mentioned earlier) may be perceiving relaxed academic requirements as ” ‘affirmative action’ that benefits only a few persons” (Aguirre & Martinez, 2007, pg. 18). Then the public are distinguishing between institutional initiatives that benefit a few persons (affirmative action) and institutional initiatives that infuse diverse experiences (diversity) into the academic culture. Therefore, a distinction must be made between affirmative action and diversity. As Chang et al (2005) states “Race in higher education is a complicated issue and a moving target. However, we are better understanding the modern forms of racial discrimination, how compositional shifts in the student body affect campus climate, how societal and psychological forces interplay to depress academic performance, and whether there are educational benefits associated with diversity (pg.10).”

Aguirre and Martinez (2007) state, “Diversity poses challenges for institutions of higher education education in regard to their ability to transform knowledge production process into one that promotes diversity as essential to improving society’s well-being. In other words, society expects higher education alone to develop acceptable ways to increase diversity” (pg. 17). Also, arguments against affirmative action state that all races and ethnicities are the same and that there are no real differences between these communities. Yet race does make a difference. As Orfield (2001) states, “Admission decisions are judgments about probabilities… We are making general assessments of students, estimating on the basis of probabilities what they will bring to the campus community” (pg. 14). It is worth considering race if the goal is to bring students with a broader range of experience and perspectives to campus. Affirmative action should be more than quotas and allow universities like State University to promote the benefits of diversity within their campus communities. The biggest problem is that, although the general public viewed diversity as important and rejected affirmative action policies, they never offered other alternative solutions.

P.S. To be continued!


One response »

  1. Pingback: Workforce Diversity Does Not Equal Affirmative Action | Striving to Thrive

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