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What Impact Was Affirmative Action Designed to Have?

In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against using race in college admissions. With this decision, the era of affirmative action in education came to a close—a policy originally set up to enhance campus diversity and address past injustices.

Black and Latino/a students will most likely face significant impacts due to this change.

History of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action began in 1961 to ensure equal employment opportunities. Initially narrow in focus but growing steadily diverse with time—the initiative embraced not just broader educational goals but also became a supportive pillar for marginalized communities including women racially different backgrounds and those living through various sorts of disabling encounters. Addressing earlier discriminatory practices while fostering increased diversity became a key focus of this new school/workplace directive.

Click HERE to jump to a deeper look into the history of affirmative action.

The Role of Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Before affirmative action, 91% of college students were white in 1970. By 2020, this number dropped to 50%, with Black students making up 12% and Latino/a students 20% of the college population. Students who previously hit racial roadblocks now find more educational paths available thanks to recent policy changes.

The Impact of the Supreme Court’s Decision

Professor Janelle Wong of the University of Maryland explains that ending affirmative action will hurt Black and Latino/a students the most. As these students grapple with tougher college admission standards, the diversity on campuses might see a decline.

How Colleges Are Responding

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, colleges still value diversity. Some schools actively seek out students from diverse backgrounds and might weigh racial themes expressed in application essays. Diversity thrives when schools offer free tuition to students coming from low-income households.

Admissions at Most Colleges Will Be Unaffected by Supreme Court Ruling on Affirmative Action, Experts Say

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard marks a significant shift in college admissions practices, particularly for highly-selective institutions. Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion, stated that the admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. This ruling mandates a change in how race and ethnicity are used in admissions decisions at these colleges.

Most community colleges and less-selective four-year colleges, where many Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American students are enrolled, did not rely on affirmative action even before this ruling. Consequently, the decision’s impact on the overall enrollment of these students may be minimal, although declines at more-selective institutions are anticipated. The ruling may also influence related programs, such as scholarships and outreach initiatives, requiring colleges to adapt their practices in accordance with constitutional guidelines.

Data on Admissions Practices

Participation in federal financial aid programs requires colleges to report various enrollment and admissions details to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). However, these reports do not specify if race is considered in admissions.

Many four-year colleges also engage in the Common Data Set (CDS) initiative, collaborating with entities like the College Board, U.S. News, and Peterson’s.

The CDS survey evaluates numerous factors in admissions decisions, categorizing them as “very important,” “important,” “considered,” or “not considered.” Both academic elements, such as standardized test scores and high school grades, and non-academic aspects, including “racial/ethnic status,” are included in this survey.

Influence of the Common Data Set: U.S. News, the College Board, and Peterson’s use the CDS data for rankings and college guides. However, they appear to have ceased publicizing whether race is considered in admissions. Despite this, many colleges continue to post their full CDS responses on their websites.

Data on racial and ethnic consideration in admissions was gathered from colleges’ publicly available CDS responses. This information was then merged with enrollment data by race and ethnicity from IPEDS and institutional characteristics.

Disclosure and Selectivity: Interpreting CDS responses can be complicated. While enrollment numbers can be verified, there is no confirmed method to determine if a college truly considers racial/ethnic status in admissions or how heavily it is weighted. Therefore, predicting changes in enrollment under race-blind admissions is not feasible with this data alone.

The key measure here focuses on whether a college indicates that it considers racial/ethnic status in admissions and if that information is shared publicly as part of a broader data set. The choice to post CDS data likely reflects an effort to provide comprehensive institutional information rather than an explicit decision to disclose details about affirmative action practices.

More-selective colleges are generally more inclined to post their CDS data online. This tendency may stem from a competitive environment, where providing detailed information can attract prospective applicants.

Colleges must evaluate multiple factors during the admissions process, balancing academic achievements with personal qualities like the applicant’s character. The use of the CDS helps streamline and standardize how colleges report and analyze this complex data, ensuring consistency across institutions. These practices contribute to a transparent admissions process and assist applicants in making informed choices.

By adhering to detailed reporting standards and making this information accessible, colleges enhance their transparency, which ultimately benefits prospective students navigating the admissions process.

Many undergraduates attend two-year and less-selective four-year colleges

Many students attend public two-year colleges, for-profit colleges, or open-access four-year colleges. These schools, which generally have minimal admission requirements, provide educational opportunities to a wide range of students. Unlike more selective institutions, these colleges do not limit enrollment through competitive admissions processes.

Two-year colleges are a significant part of the higher education system. They offer affordable tuition and flexible class schedules, which makes them an attractive choice for many students, including those who plan to transfer to four-year universities later.

First-time, full-time undergraduates are a key demographic in this sector. In the fall of 2019, 25% of these students were enrolled in public two-year colleges.

Open-access four-year colleges are another major component of higher education. These institutions often have minimal admission criteria, allowing many students who might not qualify for more selective colleges to attend. In 2019, about 43% of full-time first-year undergraduates enrolled at such colleges. This highlights their importance in providing educational access.

Interestingly, racial and ethnic background affects where students end up. Students from historically marginalized groups, such as Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American students, are more likely to attend public two-year or non-selective four-year colleges.

For instance, 29% of Black students34% of Hispanic/Latino students, and 37% of Native American students enrolled in public two-year colleges. These statistics reflect the critical role these colleges play in providing educational opportunities to these communities.

On the other hand, white, Asian/Pacific Islander, and multi-racial students are more likely to attend selective four-year institutions. Nevertheless, many of these selective institutions admit most applicants, which means they are not as exclusive as widely assumed.

Public two-year colleges and open-access four-year institutions remain unaffected by changes in affirmative action policies, as they do not rely on selective admissions to ration access. These schools may still have race-conscious programs like scholarships or targeted recruitment. However, the impact of policies around these practices is less clear without specific data.

The enrollment trends underscore the importance of less-selective institutions in delivering higher education to a broad and diverse student body. In providing accessible and affordable education, these colleges play a crucial role in shaping the workforce and future leaders, including those who may continue their education in more selective institutions or step into leadership roles in various fields.

Highly Selective Colleges Were Most Likely to Consider Race in Admissions

Highly selective colleges often took race into account when making admissions decisions. This trend is evident in several institutions, especially those classified as “most competitive.”

For instance, among these top-tier schools, about 76% engaged in affirmative action policies, which means they factored in racial and ethnic statuses in their selection process.

Barron’s rankings, which categorize colleges based on criteria like admissions rates, standardized test scores, high school grades, and the class rank of incoming students, highlight this disparity clearly.

While highly selective institutions prominently used race-conscious admissions, colleges with lower selectivity were much less likely to do so. Specifically, in the three least selective categories, only 8% or fewer students attended colleges that reported using affirmative action.

To break it down further:

  • Most competitive: 76% used race-conscious admissions.
  • Next group: 20% utilized these policies.
  • Three least selective categories: Only 8% or fewer had similar practices.

Despite their prominent use of these policies, highly selective institutions do not enroll the majority of students. Combined, the top two groups of colleges only account for 21% of student enrollment, with the next tier adding another 20%. In stark contrast, the bottom three categories, where race-based preferences were rarely used, enroll 59% of the student body.

Interestingly, the transparency of these institutions regarding their policies also varies with their selectivity.

As selectivity decreases, the number of colleges that do not post their Common Data Set (CDS) increases. Less selective colleges, which do report their usage of affirmative action, only seldom consider race as a factor.

These institutions, given their diverse population, typically do not need race-based preferences to maintain or achieve racial diversity.

For colleges that do not report their status, an assumption is made based on their Barron’s selectivity category.

The less selective institutions that do not report are categorized under “Probably didn’t consider,” suggesting they likely did not factor in race. On the other hand, those above the least selective categories fall into “Maybe considered,” indicating a possibility of using race-conscious admissions.

By analyzing these patterns, it becomes clear how and why the most selective institutions were likely to consider race in their admissions processes, contrasting sharply with the practices of less selective colleges.

Private Colleges Were More Likely Than Public Colleges to Consider Race in Admissions

In the context of college admissions, private institutions have shown a greater tendency to consider race compared to their public counterparts. This is particularly noticeable when examining various states across the United States.

State Policies and Legal Bans

In states like California, Washington, and Michigan, public colleges have long been restricted from using race as a factor in admissions due to state policies.

For instance, public institutions in California, such as UCLA, face legal prohibitions that prevent them from considering race, impacting their admissions strategies.

Differences in Reported Practices

Analyzing the data, we find that 22% of four-year college students attend colleges that practice affirmative action. However, a larger percentage, about 34%, go to colleges that do not consider race.

Among these, 17% are enrolled in public colleges in states with bans on race-conscious admissions.

Notably, 25% of public colleges in these states reported not considering race, contrasted with a mere 18% acknowledging its use.

Selective Institutions

Selectivity also plays a role. Private colleges like Princeton and Georgetown are typically more selective and often more open to considering race as part of their holistic admissions process.

Private institutions are twice as likely to report considering race compared to public colleges that are not in banned states. Moreover, private colleges are more selective on average.

This selectivity contributes to the higher likelihood of these institutions using race-conscious admissions practices.

Alumni and Legacy Admissions

Legacy preferences, often considered at private colleges, add another layer to the complex admissions landscape.

Alumni influence can be significant, with institutions like Yale Law School and Princeton frequently admitting students with family connections to the school. This practice often ties into broader discussions about privilege and access in higher education.

Type of InstitutionReports Considering RaceDoes Not Consider Race in Ban StatesDoes Not Consider Race (No Ban)
Public Colleges18%25%41%
Private CollegesHigher*N/ALower*

*Approximate trends based on reported data

Data Availability Issues

The gap in affirmative action usage is partly explained by a lack of data transparency. Private colleges are more likely to not post their Common Data Set (CDS) information, leaving a significant portion of their practices undocumented. This lack of clarity further complicates the comparison between public and private institutions.

Majority of Historically Excluded Racial/Ethnic Groups Attend Colleges That Did Not Use AA Before SFFA

While the most selective colleges often used affirmative action in their admissions processes, these institutions did not enroll a significant proportion of students from historically excluded racial and ethnic groups. Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native students were underrepresented at these selective colleges, even when race was considered.

  • Only 8% of Native students
  • 13% of Black students
  • 14% of Hispanic/Latino students

attended colleges that employed affirmative action before the ruling in the case of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA).

In contrast, certain groups, such as Asian American students, were more likely to be found at these more-selective institutions.

For instance, 32% of Asian/PI four-year students were enrolled in colleges considering race in admissions, compared to 26% of white students and 23% of students identifying with two or more races.

This indicates disparities in college attendance patterns among different racial and ethnic groups, showing that African American and Latino students, who are majorly affected by racial discrimination, often attend institutions that did not use affirmative action policies.

Potential Impacts on Other Programs

The ruling on affirmative action doesn’t just affect admissions policies. It has created legal uncertainties around various programs aimed at supporting marginalized groups.

This includes scholarship initiatives, outreach programs, and campus support services that could also face changes due to the new legal landscape. This shift might have a broader impact on the overall representation of these groups within higher education and beyond, including graduate and professional schools such as law and medical programs.

Admissions Complexity

Navigating college admissions is already a challenging process, especially for students from underrepresented communities. The end of affirmative action may add another layer of difficulty.

Research indicates that such decisions can create a “chilling effect,” where fewer minority students apply to selective institutions because they feel discouraged. This could mean fewer applications from qualified Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native students, which is worrying given that these students often have limited access to quality college counseling.

Broader Implications

Understanding the broader implications of this ruling is crucial.

Selective colleges may see a change in their demographic makeup. However, the overall numbers may not shift dramatically.

The potential decrease in applications from underrepresented groups is a concern. It could lead to reduced diversity in higher education, which has long-term implications for society.

In summary, the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action marks a significant change. Yet, its immediate impact might be less disruptive than anticipated for most colleges.

The broader effects, particularly on related programs and application rates among minority students, are critical trends to monitor. Ensuring fairness and equal opportunities in education remains essential for fostering a diverse and inclusive society.

Frequently Asked Questions About Affirmative Action

What Was Affirmative Action Designed to Do?

By implementing affirmative actions strategies, we see a significant decrease in discriminatory practices linked with one’s race or sex at school campuses as well as corporate environments. Rules changed, compelling institutions to bring in individuals from underrepresented communities either as students or staff members.

Examining whether or not affirmative action aligns with constitutional principles.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2023 that affirmative action in college admissions is unconstitutional. However, the debate over its policies began in the 1970s.

The Role and Impact of Affirmative Action Explained

Minority communities benefit from affirmative action; it ensures they have equal chances in education and employment. Embracing this concept helps us cultivate a richly diverse and welcoming community atmosphere.

What Has Affirmative Action Achieved?

Diversity at universities got a boost from affirmative action policies. Before its implementation, Black students were underrepresented in higher education. Over time, the number of Black and Latino/a students in colleges grew, reflecting a more diverse student population.

The Future Without Affirmative Action

The recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has brought significant changes in college admissions, mainly affecting how race is considered in the process. Despite the changes, the overall impact might be smaller than it first appears.

Data indicates that fewer than 15% of four-year college students from historically marginalized racial backgrounds attended institutions that practiced affirmative action before the ruling. This suggests that a limited number of students will be directly affected, as many students in these groups attend two-year colleges or less selective institutions.

Selective universities often receive disproportionate media attention due to their reputation and the high returns they offer. Graduates from these institutions, particularly elite colleges, tend to have significant representation in government, business, and media.

For example, numerous high-ranking officials and successful professionals have attended these prestigious schools. This focus is partly warranted, given the advantages these colleges provide to their students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

History of Affirmative Action: A Deeper Look

Affirmative Action Policies Throughout History

Affirmative action in the United States has undergone significant changes and faced numerous legal challenges since its inception. These policies have been aimed at addressing historical discrimination and promoting equal opportunities in areas such as education, employment, and contracting.

1961 – President John F. Kennedy introduced the concept of affirmative action with his Executive Order 10925. This directive required federal contractors to ensure that applicants were treated equally, without consideration of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This order also established the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

1964 – The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark law that made employment discrimination illegal for large employers (those with over 15 employees), regardless of their government contract status. This act led to the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

1965 – President Lyndon B. Johnson further expanded affirmative action by issuing Executive Order 11246. This order required all government contractors and subcontractors to take steps to increase job opportunities for minorities. This executive order also established the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) within the Department of Labor to enforce these requirements.

1966 – Regulations from the EEOC mandated that employers with at least 100 employees and government contractors with 50 employees must annually complete the EEO-1 Report. This document provided a snapshot of the representation of racial and ethnic minorities and women in the workforce.

1967 – President Johnson updated Executive Order 11246 to mandate affirmative action for women, thus requiring federal contractors to also make efforts to expand employment opportunities for women alongside minorities.

1970 – The Department of Labor under President Nixon issued Order No. 4, allowing federal contractors to set flexible goals and timetables to correct the underrepresentation of minorities.

1971 – Order No. 4 was revised, extending its coverage to women, further promoting gender equity in the workplace.

1971 – President Nixon also issued Executive Order 11625, which directed federal agencies to create comprehensive plans and set specific goals for a national Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) program.

1973 – Nixon authorized the Memorandum-Permissible Goals and Timetables in State and Local Government Employment Practices, distinguishing appropriate goals and improper quotas. That same year, he signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which required affirmative action plans for the employment of individuals with disabilities.

1978 – In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court upheld using race as one criterion in admissions, while ruling against set quotas like the medical school’s reserved seats for disadvantaged minorities. This case remains pivotal in the history of affirmative action in higher education as it balanced the need for diversity with the prohibition of fixed racial quotas.

1979 – Affirmative action gained further support when President Jimmy Carter issued Executive Order 12138, promoting women’s business enterprises. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court supported race-conscious affirmative action in the workforce through United Steel Workers of America v. Weber, provided such measures were temporary and did not infringe on the rights of white employees.

1983 – President Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12432 directed federal agencies with significant procurement budgets to develop plans for aiding Minority Business Enterprises. Despite attempts to dismantle affirmative action under his administration, fierce resistance from various quarters, including civil rights groups and corporate leaders, preserved these policies.

1986 – The Supreme Court, in Local 128 of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association v. EEOC, upheld a ruling that allowed for race-conscious goals in union membership to remedy past discrimination.

1987 – In Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, the Supreme Court validated the consideration of race or sex as one of the factors in hiring decisions to address significant underrepresentation.

1989 – The decision in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. required that affirmative action programs in state or local governments be supported by a compelling interest and narrowly tailored to achieve that goal. This case tightened the scrutiny on affirmative action policies, particularly local minority contracting programs.

1990 – President George H.W. Bush enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, further expanding protections against discrimination for individuals with disabilities in various domains including employment and public services.

1991 – The Civil Rights Act of 1991 was signed by President George H.W. Bush, providing for the right to trial by jury on discrimination claims and introducing the possibility of emotional distress damages.

1994 – In Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, the Supreme Court held that federal affirmative action programs must meet a compelling governmental interest and be narrowly focused to address issues of discrimination.

1995 – President Bill Clinton reviewed and supported affirmative action policies, announcing a strategy to “Mend it, don’t end it.” The same year, California’s Proposition 209 passed, effectively banning racial and gender preferences in public employment, education, and contracting.

1996 – The case Texas v. Hopwood found the University of Texas’s law school admissions policy considering race unconstitutional, setting a precedent for scrutiny on race-based admissions criteria.

1997 – Enforcement of Proposition 209 began, eliminating affirmative action programs within the California public sector, affecting public employment, education, and contracting. Nonetheless, voters in Houston rejected a similar initiative, demonstrating diverse opinions on affirmative action policies across the country.

Throughout these significant moments in history, affirmative action has faced varying levels of support and opposition, evolving to address the needs of different minority and underrepresented groups. It has played a critical role in shaping the landscape of equal opportunity in the United States, particularly in fields like education and employment, where diversity and inclusion have been pivotal issues. To explore more on this topic, you can visit History of Affirmative Action in Higher Education, which provides detailed insights on the historical progression of these policies.


Affirmative action has long been a focal point of debate in the United States, leading to numerous Supreme Court cases that have shaped public policies and the landscape of higher education and employment.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that while the University of California’s quota system for minority admissions violated the Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, race could still be considered as one of many factors in college admissions to promote diversity. This decision laid the groundwork for affirmative action policies across the country.

United Steelworkers of America v. Weber (1979)

A new training program in a Louisiana plant led to a dispute when a white employee complained about being passed over for less senior African American employees. The Supreme Court upheld the program, stating it did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act since it sought to eliminate racial imbalances without completely barring whites from advancement. The decision showcased the Court’s endorsement of affirmative action designed to redress specific racial segregation patterns.

Fullilove v. Klutznick (1980)

In this case, the Supreme Court upheld a federal law requiring a 10% minority business set-aside for public works, stressing the remedial nature of such programs aimed at overcoming the effects of past discrimination. This supported the idea that affirmative action could be used as a way to correct historic inequalities.

Stotts v. Memphis Fire Department (1984)

This ruling addressed the complexity of seniority systems in layoffs within the Memphis fire department. The Supreme Court decided that seniority must be upheld even if it undermined affirmative action goals, reinforcing the notion that white employees could not be displaced to favor minorities in job security negotiations.

Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (1986)

This case reinforced the principle that layoffs could not be based on race to protect jobs of minority workers over more senior white workers. The Supreme Court highlighted that affirmative action could not involve the direct dismissal of employees based on race, emphasizing the need for equal competition.

U.S. v. Paradise and Johnson v. Santa Clara County Transportation Agency (1987)

Both cases supported the use of affirmative action in promoting minority workers. In U.S. v. Paradise, the Court approved a one-for-one promotion policy for Alabama’s Department of Public Safety, while in Johnson v. Santa Clara County, the Court upheld gender consideration in promotions for jobs with low female representation. These decisions demonstrated the Court’s acceptance of affirmative action under certain narrowly tailored and justified circumstances.

City of Richmond v. Croson (1989)

This decision marked a shift, as the Supreme Court applied strict scrutiny to local affirmative action programs. In invalidating Richmond’s minority business set-aside, the Court required demonstrable “compelling government interest” and a narrow tailoring of affirmative action programs, setting a high bar for their continuation.

Adarand Constructors v. Pena (1995)

Similarly, the Supreme Court extended this strict scrutiny to federal affirmative action programs. The decision required that such programs be precisely targeted to meet compelling governmental interests but did not completely rule out affirmative action, leaving space for properly designed programs to continue.

Prominent Cases Involving Education

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)

Involving the University of Michigan Law School, this case reaffirmed that race could be used as one of many factors in admissions to achieve a diverse student body. The Supreme Court upheld the law school’s policy, emphasizing the educational benefits of diversity as a compelling interest.

Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)

On the same day, the Court ruled against the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy, which awarded points based on race. The Court found the policy too mechanistic and not narrowly tailored, clarifying limits on how race could be considered in admissions processes.

Fisher v. University of Texas (2013, 2016)

Abigail Fisher’s challenge against the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions policy resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the use of race in a holistic admissions process. The Court emphasized that such considerations must withstand strict scrutiny and serve a compelling interest in achieving diversity.

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and University of North Carolina (ongoing)

These ongoing cases challenge the admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The plaintiffs argue that the use of race in admissions creates discrimination against Asian-American applicants. The outcomes could significantly impact the future of affirmative action in higher education.

Legislative and Voter Initiatives

Proposition 209 (1996)

In California, voters passed Proposition 209, amending the state constitution to prohibit state institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in employment, contracting, and education. This shift mirrored the Court’s increasing skepticism toward affirmative action and led to notable changes in university admissions and public employment practices within the state.

Equal Protection Clause

Part of the 14th Amendment, this clause prohibits states from denying any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. It has been central to the Court’s consideration of affirmative action cases, as policies must align with the clause’s guarantee of equality.

Strict Scrutiny

The highest standard of review used by courts to evaluate the constitutionality of governmental discrimination, requiring a compelling governmental interest and narrow tailoring. This standard was notably applied in City of Richmond v. Croson and Adarand Constructors v. Pena.

Affirmative action remains a contentious issue, continuously evolving through pivotal court decisions and policy changes. Both supporters and opponents await further clarifications and rulings that will shape the principles of equality and diversity across various sectors.


Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (SFFA) Supreme Court Ruling PDF

Research on the decline of race-conscious admissions:

Guidance issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice: Guidance PDF

Common Data Set (CDS) Common Data Set

Detailed data collection and construction Brookings Appendix PDF