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What Is Affirmative Action in College Admissions?


Affirmative action is one of the most hotly debated topics in college admissions today. With the 2023 from the Supreme Court that colleges and universities can no longer use their full affirmative action policies in admissions decisions, things are about to change in higher education.

If you’re applying to college and wondering what the new Supreme Court affirmative action decision is all about, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll answer the question, “What is affirmative action in college admissions?” and go over real examples of affirmative action in education policies and how colleges have used them historically.  

We’ll also explain how the upcoming changes to affirmative action in public and private schools might affect incoming students, and how to put together stellar college applications no matter what.  

So let’s get started.


What Was Affirmative Action in Higher Education?

Affirmative action is a set of legal procedures that aim to eliminate and make amends for past, present, and future unlawful discrimination. In general, affirmative action laws and policies try to ensure that applicants won’t be rejected based on race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, age, gender, or disability. 

Affirmative action in higher education worked to eliminate race-based discrimination of college applicants and increase diversity in student populations. And while these policies aren’t applicable to college admissions after the 2023 Supreme Court ruling, they can still govern hiring and employment. 

Affirmative action policies are strictly regulated by state and federal governments. To prove they’re meeting regulations, employers (and schools) have historically had to document their affirmative action practices and metrics. If an employer or school’s affirmative action policy didn’t meet federal or state requirements, it could be declared unconstitutional. 

Affirmative action’s goal has been to give every applicant equal access to educational and workplace opportunities. Over the years, affirmative action laws and policies have undergone many changes. To help you understand why affirmative action was established and how it's changed over the years, let’s look at examples of affirmative action in education throughout history. 



Affirmative action’s aim was is increase ethnic, racial, and gender diversity. 


History of Affirmative Action 

It’s a common misconception that affirmative action laws were originally designed to address discrimination in college admissions. But that’s not the case! The first affirmative action laws only applied to employers and employment practices. In fact, they didn’t apply to college admissions at all. 

Affirmative action was originally designed to create equal employment opportunities for people in the US. It first appeared in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925. The order required employers who received federal funds to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." In other words, affirmative action began as a way to tackle discrimination in the workplace. 

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 modified President Kennedy’s policy by prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and (added in 1967) gender. The modified law applied to all employment organizations that received federal contracts and subcontracts. 


History of Affirmative Action in College Admissions

So what is affirmative action in college admissions, then? 

While early affirmative action laws didn’t apply to college admissions, many colleges took cues from these laws to create their own affirmative action policies for college admissions. These policies worked to increase the racial diversity of college campuses and eliminate race-based discrimination in the admissions process.  

In the 1960s and 1970s, many college admissions affirmative action policies relied on quotas to create a diverse student body. These quotas set aside a certain number of admission spots for students from specific racial demographics. 

As an example of affirmative action in education, a university might set aside 10% of its admissions slots for Asian students, 5% of its slots for Black students, and so on. 

But affirmative action cases in higher education changed how this worked. But in 1978, quotas were outlawed by the US Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In this ruling, the court determined that using race as an exclusive basis for admissions decisions violates the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

In response, colleges and universities adapted their affirmative action policies to make them more comprehensive, which is sometimes called a “holistic” approach. Race became one factor in affirmative actions policies, not the only factor. In other words, students would no longer be accepted or rejected based solely on their race. 



Affirmative action dates back to John F. Kennedy. It's been around a while!


Recent History of Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Between 1978 and 2023, colleges could legally consider race as one of several factors in the admissions process. They couldn’t admit or reject students based solely on race, and they couldn’t use quotas or rating systems that considered race or minority status. The Supreme Court also required schools to prove that there were no available race-neutral alternatives that could be used to evaluate college applicants instead of race. 

Having said that, affirmative action wasn’t required in college admissions. Universities could decide whether they wanted to use affirmative action policies or not. Affirmative action colleges could set their own policies as long as they didn’t violate federal law. 

We can look at recent affirmative action in college admissions statistics to see exactly how many schools used the policy to evaluate applications. According to 2015 data from the College Board and Ballotpedia, of 577 public four-year colleges, 109 considered race in admissions


The New Supreme Court Affirmative Action Ruling 

On June 29, 2023 the Supreme Court ruled on two cases involving affirmative action: Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. 

The organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) argued that affirmative action is discriminatory and sought to eliminate all race-conscious admissions practices. The plaintiffs claimed that Harvard and the University of North Carolina discriminated against white and Asian students by giving preference to Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. 

More specifically, the case against Harvard claimed that the university discriminated against Asian American students by using subjective metrics, like the likability or kindness of applicants. The plaintiffs in the Harvard case claimed that this created a ceiling for Asian American students in admissions. In both cases plaintiffs said that Harvard and UNC gave preferential treatment to certain applicants based on race. 

In a historic 6-2 split decision, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling from 2003 that upheld colleges’ right to consider race as one of several factors in a highly individualized admissions process. Instead, the Supreme Court declared both schools’ affirmative action policies unconstitutional.

That means that schools can no longer legally use affirmative action policies as part of the college admissions process. However, this ruling doesn’t change how affirmative action works outside of the education system.

According to the 2023 opinion published by Chief Justice John Roberts, Harvard and UNC’s affirmative action policies were unconstitutional because they didn’t provide “measurable objectives” to warrant race as a factor in admissions decisions. Instead, he argued, they employed “racial stereotyping” that did not have “meaningful end points.” In other words, the Supreme Court majority declared that race-conscious admissions policies didn’t have a useful purpose, and therefore did not comply with the Equal Protection Clause. 

Supreme Court opponents of this majority ruling, including Justices Sonia Sotomayer, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson argued that race-conscious admissions policies are crucial to ending continued discrimination on college campuses around the country. Justice Sotomayer claimed that the result of the majority’s decision was that now universities would be able to use racial stereotypes to prevent admission, but wouldn’t be allowed to consider how the race of an individual applicant might contribute to that person’s “individualized contributions to a diverse learning environment.” Furthermore, these opponents claim that the majority’s reading of the Constitution in this case is “not grounded in law and subverts the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.”



People don't see eye to eye on affirmative action, and right now, they're duking it out in the courts.  


Why Are Affirmative Action Colleges Controversial? 

In general, affirmative action is controversial because some people believe that these policies give certain groups preferential treatment. 

Those who support the SCOTUS affirmative action decision claim that these policies made college admissions more discriminatory. These people argue that granting advantages to one group, based on race or any other factor, impacts other groups negatively. Opponents to affirmative action believe that removing affirmative action policies will make sure that students get accepted to schools based on their academic merit. 

Those who oppose the SCOTUS affirmative action decision claim that these policies are necessary for ending race-based discrimination in college admissions. They also believe they help make amends for past discrimination. Supporters of affirmative action believe that considering race in admissions (among other factors) diversifies college campuses and provides students with a well-rounded education by ensuring that all students are exposed to multiple viewpoints. People who hold this view assert that equal opportunity for students from all backgrounds can’t be achieved without considering race and other demographic factors.

In other words, there’s a lot of debate out there about whether or not affirmative action policies do more harm or more good, and whether they are necessary or not.



The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 decision could change affirmative action for colleges forever. 


How the 2023 Ruling Will Affect Affirmative Action in College Admissions 

So you’re probably wondering, “What is affirmative action in college admissions now?” 

Because the ruling is still so new, we’re not 100% sure how colleges and universities across the country’s admissions policies will change. We’ll update this article as more information comes out, but here’s what we know so far.

Schools that have affirmative action policies today can no longer consider race as a factor in admissions. These schools may still be able to consider gender, nationality, and/or family income in their admissions decisions to increase diversity in their student population, but that’s not entirely clear. The new precedent, however, may mean that universities will simply get rid of affirmative action policies altogether. 

As of 2022, nine states had already completely banned affirmative action, which means schools in those states already couldn’t consider race (or any other demographic factors) in college admissions. These states include California, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington. 

Now that no colleges or universities–public or private–can use race as a factor in admissions, more states may follow suit and ban all affirmative action policies. So how will this affect you?


Fluctuating Demographics on College Campuses

Since the Supreme Court ruled against Harvard and UNC, experts claim that the representation of Black and Latino students will decrease at schools all over the nation, and particularly elite schools. 

In Michigan, black undergraduate enrollment dropped from 7 to 4 percent in 2021, the year the state approved the referendum banning affirmative action. This means that we now know that minority representation is more likely to decrease at schools that lose their race-conscious policies.

That being said, a 2019 survey from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling found that only a quarter of schools said race had a “considerable” or “moderate” influence on admissions. More than half of the responding schools reported that race was not a factor that was considered during the admissions process.

This means that how much you’re affected by the new ruling may depend on your chosen university’s former policies. If the school you plan to apply to didn’t have a race-conscious admission policy in the past, you may not experience any difference in the admissions process. If you intend to apply to an elite university or any other school that previously used race-conscious and other affirmative action policies, it may make it harder for you to get in if you’re from a marginalized background. 


Fluctuating College Diversity Policies 

That said, Harvard and UNC both say that while they will comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, they will also maintain their commitment to diversity in higher education.

In addition, the new ruling does not prohibit schools from considering an applicant's discussion of how race has impacted their life. This means that in your application and essay you can still talk about how your race has shaped your life and contributed to your development as a student and excellent admissions candidate. 



Here's how you can plan ahead in anticipation of changes to affirmative action policies.


3 Tips To Plan Ahead for Changes to College Affirmative Action

There’s always the possibility that there will be more changes to affirmative action in colleges in addition to the new ban on race-conscious policies. With the future of how admissions will look now up in the air, it’s important to plan ahead so you’re prepared when college applications are due. 

We’ve put together three tips that will help you plan ahead for college applications–and be prepared no matter what else happens with affirmative action. 


Tip 1: Do Your Research 

You can stay on top of what’s happening with affirmative action policies nationally and at individual colleges by doing some research

When it’s time to finalize your list of colleges and complete college applications, start with a quick Google search. Check for any new or recent news articles on affirmative action in the US, especially ones covering the recent Supreme Court cases we talked about earlier. Also look to see if schools have issued statements on how they’re adjusting admissions policies based on the Supreme Court decision. 

As you research, remember: stick to unbiased news outlets and articles. Read multiple sources and compare what you find so that you have an accurate picture of what’s going on with affirmative action and how it’s impacting college admissions. 


Tip 2: Check College Admissions Websites

It’s also important to review the admissions policies for each school you’re applying to, and see if they require any new application materials

Schools that previously considered race in admissions will likely provide a statement about affirmative action on their website. This will help you learn exactly how your application will be evaluated now that policies have changed. It’s possible that schools might ask for additional application materials, such as optional essays, to help maintain their “holistic” admissions approach. Checking for these in advance will help you put together a stellar application that’s tailored to each school!

If you have trouble finding information about how a school uses affirmative action in admissions, reach out to the admissions office. An admissions counselor can walk you through the school’s policy and answer your questions about how affirmative action changes will affect you.  


Tip 3: Perfect Your College Applications

Once you’ve done your research, use everything you’ve learned to nail your college applications

Remember: schools that considered race in admissions only considered it as one of many other factors. The rest of each student’s application always came first. So study hard for the SAT or ACT, work on your spike approach, take part in extracurriculars, and write killer admissions essays that show your unique qualities and experiences. And feel free to discuss any part of your identity–race included–that defines who you are and what you stand for!

At the end of the day, no matter where you apply to college–and no matter what their new policy is on affirmative action–it’s possible to get in with an amazing application.  




What’s Next? 

One of the best ways to get into the college of your dreams is to focus on building a great application. Our step-by-step guide to the college application process will teach you how.

Another way is to learn from the people who've gone through the process before you. For example, check out this article on how to get into Harvard...written by an alum! 

It's always a good idea to be on the lookout for things you can do to make your college application stand out. These seven things will definitely catch admission officers' attention. 



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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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