When you hear the phrase, “affirmative action,” the thought that usually follows is college admissions. What many people may not know, is that affirmative action programs actually extend far beyond college admissions. Their purpose was to help groups that have been discriminated against. Essentially, the idea behind this concept was to level the playing field for all races rather than lifting minorities above their white counterparts. We’ll be discussing college admissions specifically here, but understanding the background of affirmative action plans can help people choose their opinions. Understanding that affirmative action originally banned employment discrimination as well as college discrimination will only add to the discussion.
What I hope to achieve in this particular article is to not necessarily discuss the bare ethics of affirmative action plans but rather to look at different statistics that may contribute to whether they are worth keeping. My goal isn’t necessarily to sway in either direction but to pose some numbers as well as why those numbers may be relevant to the argument.
Affirmative Action Statistics
So what are the numbers we’re looking at? Affirmative action statistics may help us understand whether we have leveled the playing field or tilted it in the direction of minorities. My goal here is to list off some statistics and then explain their importance to the argument for or against affirmative action.
Pew Research Center Statistics
Just to start off with a couple of opinions, a Pew Research Center study showed that:
- 73% of adults believe that race should hold no part in determining college admission
- 78% of white adults believe that race should hold no part in determining college admission
- 62% of black adults believe that race should hold no part in determining college admission
- 65% of Hispanic adults believe that race should hold no part in determining college admission
- 59% of Asian adults believe that race should hold no part in determining college admission
Let’s break it down by political parties. 85% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats believe that college admissions should be completely race blind.
What this has led me to believe is that a majority of Americans are against affirmative action. It’s important to consider that this is but one study among many. However, even a majority of the minority groups benefiting from affirmative action seem to disagree with it. How many Americans have taken the time to educate themselves regarding affirmative action? It’s hard to say, but those are the opinions for consideration. One doesn’t always need to know that statistics to determine whether an idea is ethically sound. Nevertheless, let’s consider a couple more facts.
Another affirmative action statistic to consider…
80% of students with parents who graduated from college said that they were encouraged to seek out higher education compared to just 29% of students with no-degree households receiving encouragement to attend higher education.
Why might this statistic be important? As I worked in different classrooms, I came to learn that home support for school is everything. Even with the best teachers, it is the family life that most determines academic success. You’ll find resilient students who come from difficult homes. And you’ll find rebellious students who come from good homes, but as a general rule, family life is crucial. It is CRUCIAL. Now let’s take a little time to consider what this means for different races.
- 73.2% of white Americans have finished college or are still enrolled
- 65% of Hispanic Americans have finished college or are still enrolled
- 55.4% of black Americans have finished college or are still enrolled
- 80% of Asian Americans have finished college or are still enrolled
According to an NCES report, 57% of undergraduate students are white, 14% are black, 19% are hispanic, 7% were Asian/Pacific Islander, 4% were from multiple ethnicities, and 1% was Native American.
Why is affirmative action even a thing in the first place?
But what if we look at the children and grandchildren of those who were discriminated against? If we take one generation of a race and lock them completely out of college, what would that do to the percentage of the next generation in regards to college completion? What would it do to the generation after that? Even if racism were completely abandoned tomorrow, white Americans would still be born with an advantage. Why? Because they are more likely to be born into a home with college-educated parents.
Does that make affirmative action ethical? Possibly not. Does it help minorities get into college who might not otherwise attend? The answer is yes. Will that help future generations to participate in college? Looking at the statistics, that is a resounding yes. Once again, whether affirmative action is or is not ethical is a different argument than what I’m portraying currently. What I’m portraying currently is that affirmative action IS something that helps groups of people who are disadvantaged. Another little caveat to take into consideration with this argument, is how often is affirmative action benefiting first generation college students and how many are benefiting minority students born into college-educated home? I found no specific statistics for that one, but it’s interesting to consider.
Now here’s an interesting statistic for you…
Even with affirmative action being present in college education, black and Hispanic students are LESS represented than they were 35 years ago. While the same article still asserts that affirmative action is helping the minorities, perhaps it’s time to consider other options less controversial and more helpful than our current trajectory.
The Ethical Argument for Affirmative Action
To further add to the discussion, let’s look a little at the philosophical arguments surrounding affirmative action. A lot of the ideas presented in the next two sections are common arguments you’ll hear from both sides regarding affirmative action plans.
One of the biggest arguments you’ll find in favor of affirmative action is that it was the government who originally caused the problem, and so it’s up to them to fix it. They need to right a wrong; they placed these people at a disadvantage before they were even born. It is argued that many colleges don’t always select students based on academic merit anyway. When an athlete is accepted into a school, it’s not about their academics but what they can bring to the school. When a legacy student is accepted, it’s because the school is looking for donations from alumni. Colleges consider plenty of facets when admitting students, and race doesn’t necessarily need to be a big deal. Just like athletes and legacy students bring value to the school, diversity can also bring its own kind of value.
Republican vs Democratic POVs
This leads me to summarize what seems like a minute difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. When asked what higher education was for, Republicans believed it was to train students to enter the workforce. This is a noble endeavor. Democrats tended to lean towards the opinion that the purpose of education was to develop character. Though both are good purposes and should both be pursued in college, they present different lenses with which to observe affirmative action.
If we were simply looking to train individuals for the workforce, we would want the best and brightest to filter into our post-graduation economy. This could potentially come at the cost of diversity because college admissions would be racially blind. However, if the purpose of higher education is to develop character, diversity can be a really healthy avenue to further that goal. It is imperative to be exposed to different viewpoints. It can turn out responsible citizens. Having diversity at the college level can help build bridges for a more heterogeneous workforce. Though beliefs regarding the purpose of college may seem negligible at first, they can have
The Ethical Argument Against Affirmative Action
There are numerous lawsuits filed regarding those negatively affected by affirmative action. A lot of these arguments surround the Republican ideal of the purpose of college. College admissions are often tied closely to career opportunities. What this means is that white and Asian students can be negatively impacted for the rest of their lives.
It’s not just students missing out on a specific college they wanted to attend (because often these students are easily accepted into other universities). It goes beyond college and into the workforce. A Harvard degree is always going to look good on a resume. Interestingly enough, Harvard is one of the main schools being sued by anti-affirmative action groups. These students, who aren’t racist and haven’t committed crimes of discrimination, are the ones being negatively affected. The argument that the government needs to right its wrong may be legitimate. But should it come at the expense of innocent students who prepared and are more academically qualified? It’s hard to quantify how negative of an impact these affirmative action plans can have on white and Asian students. But philosophically, it’s a sound argument.
Another argument you can often run across is that accepting less qualified students based on race only sets them up for failure. When competing with other students who were admitted based on academics, these groups may be struggling to keep up. Or, it may put them in environments where they can succeed and be challenged. This is likewise hard to quantify.
An Alternative Solution
If it’s true that minorities are even more under-represented than they were 35 years ago, and if a majority of Americans disagree with affirmative action in college admissions, perhaps it’s time to look at alternative solutions. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that minority groups are often born with disadvantages so that we can have a discussion regarding whether it’s the government’s responsibility to step in and fix the problem.
In my opinion, anyone in a situation better than that of those around them DOES have a responsibility to help those around them. However, what that “help” should look like is hard to legislate. Some of the biggest factors in success (having both parents in the home, college educated parents, etc.) are not things a government can put into legislation.
So what do we do? Is affirmative action making a big difference? Is there a way we can bring more minorities into universities without “punishing” innocent, academically successful students? Drop us a comment below or shoot an email with your proposed solution! We would love to hear what you think.
“A Race for Race-Blind Admissions” by Emily Hoeven