Affirmative Action in Student Admissions


To most Americans, Affirmative Action (AA) is a very familiar though scarcely understood term that denotes various strategies that have been designed to improve educational, employment, and business opportunities for ethnic or racial minority groups and women. However, the mode of implementation of these strategies, the actions required for such implementation to take place, and the effects such implementation has on the wider society, vary depending on the specific program at hand. Through Affirmative Action, the American government felt that giving the Blacks and other minorities such as Hispanics more opportunities in high profile jobs, would help to gradually reduce the widespread feelings of racial self-consciousness, injustice, and frustration that these people continued to experience. Such a move was meant to help them acquire a sense of belonging in their society, as equally destined to succeed through talent and through initiative as well (Cahn, 2002, p.104; Kellough, 2006, p.3).

The Affirmative Action controversy

Affirmative Action ranks among the most controversial and politically debated issues on American soil. People have often disagreed over the necessity of such action, morality and legality of its implementation, and the type of methods that should be used to implement such policies. The continuous debate over Affirmative Action and its policies has often lead to widespread accusations that such programs have only achieved in creating a more racially, conscious type of society than otherwise intended. This is primarily due to the system’s policies of sharing opportunities, resources, and careers in proportionate numbers to racial or ethnic groups that have previously suffered some form of racial discrimination within the wider society. But Affirmative Action does not use its programs to increase racial awareness but rather uses the criteria of the race to help improve the status of certain races in society by increasing their numbers in certain professions (Cahn, 2002, p.104; Kellough, 2006, p.3).

The Affirmative Action policies have been widely analyzed and debated whereby opponents of affirmative action have described the system as defying meritocracy, leading to a reversed form of discrimination, and to them, it is a very un-American way of guaranteeing equal results while undermining equal opportunity. Proponents of the same on the other hand believe that it is a worthwhile course that deserves reasonable support in its effort to erase the impact of past injustices in society. To them, Affirmative Action is a constitutionally guaranteed civil right, which has gone through the refining process of later statutes to emerge as a guarantee for fair distribution of the societal economic pie. But it is ironic how and why an unpopular policy designed only for the benefit of minorities would raise a national debate of such high magnitude or even get a footing in the politics of such a great nation as America (Kellough, 2006, p.9-12).

Affirmative Action has also been blamed for stigmatizing recipients of preferential enrollment by giving the implication that they got their positions through preference rather than ability or degree qualifications. Such people are bound to undergo emotional and psychological pressure because of the exaggerated high or low expectations that come with their positions or extreme evaluation directed to their work (Aronson, 2002, p.340). But only a small minority of the less fortunate in society has been found to confuse special privilege and Affirmative Action. Most colored women for example think that Affirmative Action enhances rewards based on merit rather than diminishing them. Among the males, there has been reported less cynicism and increased occupational ambitions (Crosby & VanDeveer, 2000, p.135-136).

Literature review

Affirmative Action has primarily succeeded in producing a more diverse student population, and a diverse workforce in academic institutions, although many of the barriers affecting most social groups are yet to undergo any positive change. In New York and Oregon, equal employment has received positive results under programs run in secondary and elementary schools. Minority enrollment into medical and law school increased in the 1970s until the Bakke lawsuit that led to a temporal decline with the situation later leveling off during the mid-1980s. Affirmative Action has made tremendous achievements, but through the combined effort of such other factors as support from relevant authorities, and recipients prior awareness of the benefits that such programs would bring (Aronson, 2002, p.339, 343).

The ethnic, racial, gender composition, and individuals’ age groups in university colleges reflect striking changes that have taken place in the field of higher education. Over a period of two decades, there has been increased enrollment of African Americans and Hispanics in academic institutions of higher learning although their rates have remained low compared to the whites students’ enrollment during the same period. Such a gap has however been narrowing over time. Most of the institutions of higher learning have witnessed demographic changes and they now host a student population that is more culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse than before. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2005) reflect an increase of minority students from 22 percent in 1972 to 42 percent in 2003. This increase has been realized in both colleges and universities. Historically white-dominated institutions have greatly contributed to high Black and Hispanic student enrollments. Affirmative Action has been recognized for contributing to increased minority representation in such professional fields as law, medicine, engineering, and science. Abolishing Affirmative Action would greatly affect minority student and faculty enrollments in all fields of higher learning (Inoue, 2006, p.62-63).

Although Affirmative Action has lagged behind in erasing racial discrimination in America, its policies have offered compensatory justice to the minority groups who have for a long time suffered widespread discrimination from white Americans. By helping members of minority groups to rise to desirable and prominent positions in American society, Affirmative Action has to some degree helped such groups to rise out and forget their unpleasant past. Beneficiaries of Affirmative Action who have been lucky to achieve considerable success in their careers are good role models to the young generation within their communities, encouraging them to strive and produce the best out of life. Such beneficiaries are also better positioned to voluntarily provide service contributions to their communities than anyone else. Increasing the number of the underrepresented will produce more graduates from among them, who are eligible for high profile careers; therefore enhancing the operations of the country’s democratic system as well as making tremendous contributions to the economy’s efficiency (Weisskopf, 2004, p.25-27).

Scholarly analysis

Affirmative Action is deeply rooted in the turbulent period that characterized American society between 1964 and 1971, giving rise to a very heated debate about the racial preference that became an integral part of American politics. The debate revolved around preferential treatment for minorities and women or the use of test scores in determining the level of employment opportunities and college admissions available to them. Both men and women strongly rejected preferential treatment although a minority of blacks supported it. The policy was largely constructed by the white male elite section of American society. It, therefore, becomes ironic to try and understand how and why the whites instituted and supported a policy that would affect their own and how such policies have survived the turbulent times of American politics (Crosby & VanDeVeer, 2000, p.6).

The United States of America has had a long history of discrimination against minority ethnic groups and women through sexist, racist, and ethnocentric attitudes (Kellough, 2006, p.21). Racial consciousness has been blamed for the small numbers of ethnic minorities in high-profile professions like law and medicine, and in other opportunities as well. It was under the fear that the American society was developing along with racial divisions that the concept of Affirmative Action was coined, whose programs for change would help the Blacks and other minorities to have a place in the lucrative and satisfying careers that had continually been a special right for the white majorities. But Affirmative Action does not for example aim at increasing the number of black doctors so that blacks can be treated by their own and the whites likewise, but because any failure to do so will only exacerbate the resentment that blacks have against whites and the tendency to trust only their own (Cahn, 2002, p.104-105).

Critics accuse Affirmative Action of grouping people under various categories instead of valuing them as individuals thus running parallel to America’s value of every individual’s liberty. The System has also been blamed for directing its programs towards the skilled in society at the advantage of the non-skilled persons in the population thus widening the gap between the two. But supporters of Affirmative Action defend the system by arguing that no single social or economic program is capable of curing all the social ills affecting society (Crosby & VanDeveer, 2000, p.5-6).

The term Affirmative Action was initially minimalist in its scope, simply referring to those plans designed to guard against racial discrimination, safeguard equal representation or opportunity, offer open advertisement of positions, and establish scholarship programs that would consider recruitment of persons from particular groups. But in the course of time, Affirmative Action expanded and assumed new meanings where it came to be associated with preferential policies and quotas that targeted specific groups such as the minority members of society and women. But this has led to accusations against Affirmative Action that its policies encourage sexual discrimination (Cahn, 2002, p.210).

Since the 1970s, Affirmative Action programs have been seriously contested and very many court disputes have been directed towards these policies. The Alan Bakke court dispute against the Davis Medical School of the University of California, in which Bakke went to court for being denied admission, despite holding qualifications far superior to those held by several blacks admitted to the school is one of the most famous of such cases. The ruling, in this case, gave a leeway for many education institutions to carry on with Affirmative Action and most of the selective institutions continued to do so. But this trend changed in the 1990s when Affirmative Action was struck out of educational institution admissions on the ground of the US 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause that banned discrimination according to sex, race, religion, and nationality. In 1997, two lawsuits followed suit, this time filed against the University of Michigan’s admission policies based on Affirmative Action and which ended up at the Supreme Court. The long-awaited decisions were finally passed in a US Supreme Court ruling in the month of June 2003, but the rulings only reinforced the support that Affirmative Action had enjoyed since the Bakke case in 1978 (Weisskopf, 2004, p.9-10).

Review of best practices

In the education sector, Affirmative Action tries to balance the number of students in a medical class for example, so that the medical school positively reflects the racial combination of such a community. It is also hoped that professional associations will reduce the racial attitude that whites have held against blacks, by helping the whites to see their Black colleagues through the eyes of a people rather than a race; and also reduce the tendency among blacks to see themselves as a discriminated race. Affirmative action has therefore been using its programs to help reduce the racial consciousness that has historically characterized the minority in America and especially the black people (Cahn, 2002, p.105, 209).

Diversity has been a desirable and strong concept in breaking and erasing racial discrimination especially against women and African Americans and as a result diversity has become the major most important platform upon which Affirmative Action has based its policies. This desirability is what has given justification to such Affirmative Action programs as college and university admissions. It is within such institutions that young people receive proper training in professional and public life leadership roles and are also the best places where intelligent people gather to interact, enlarge their visions, understand their levels of potentiality, enjoy their artistic and literary inheritance, as well as sharpen their critical understanding and judgment (Cahn, 2002, p.148). But as much as Affirmative action has been a useful tool in alleviating the discrimination previously suffered by ethnic minorities and women, the policy is yet to realize any success in combating the crisis that has marked America’s system of higher education (Gandara, Orfiled & Horn, 2006, p.167,172).

Practical aspects of the Affirmative Action controversy

Campuses have been and still are the places where the most lucrative, prestigious, interesting, and conspicuous careers get their training and rightful certification. Upon this ground, higher education and workplace desegregation remain connected because university or college credentials are a requirement to join some occupations. Desegregation in the institutions of higher learning, therefore, remains an important part of the country’s job desegregation process (Cahn, 2002, p.149). The reasons for applying Affirmative Action in higher education admissions are very compelling in comparison to other admissions. Through this concept, there is great effort directed towards healing America’s racial cleavage, helping black people living in the less advantaged sectors of society, encouraging closer and more positive interaction between whites and blacks; and increasing job opportunities for black people in the market (Crosby & VanDeVeer, 2000, p.237).

To supporters of Affirmative Action, the system is evolving, but to the opponents, it is bureaucratized inequality that they wish to completely abolish. There have been many crusaders against Affirmative Action in college admissions in such states as California and Texas, a move that has raised a lot of angry protest from African American and Hispanic legislators, parents, students, and voters alike. Political decisions regarding Affirmative Action have dramatically affected America’s system of higher learning, reviving feelings of resentment among the minority races, and arousing bitterness in majority males who run these institutions. But political decisions have also produced some positive results in that college administrators, attorneys, and politicians have become more involved in the search for better ways of maintaining and improving diversity in college campuses. In 1997 for example, a series of closed-door meetings held at Harvard University by leading Affirmative Action proponents had the primary goal of developing research procedures in diversity that would help to support Affirmative Action against various Supreme Court cases, as well as help to preserve this system. (Ibarra, 2001, p.3-4).

Implications for leaders in higher education

For leaders in higher education, the pressure for change is alarming. Traditional values on academic qualifications appear to be playing a great role in continuous under-representation, while court rulings, state legislatures, and voters continue to mount more pressure for change. More than 30 years of anti-discrimination legislation through Affirmative Action is on the verge of destruction. Currently, most University administrators support not only diverse student representation but also ensure that faculty and staff representation reflects a kind of society capable to meet the diverse expectations of its ethnically diverse and rapidly increasing population. What remains puzzling then, is why, despite the rapid growth of most segments of the American population, some racial groups are still grossly underrepresented on college campuses despite all the effort that has been made through Affirmative Action. The duty still weighs heavily on educators to improve such numbers (Ibarra, 2001, p.4).

Leaders in educational institutions have a great challenge in the future stability and success of these institutions in providing educational opportunities. To realize such success, these opportunities must be designed in such a way that a balance of cultural, economic, and political rights is achieved. Diversity in the student population has presented some very unique challenges in that these students also represent diversity of culture, language, educational experiences, and ways of learning, and financial status. Educators now face the challenge of harmonizing such a community while at the same time producing the best out of this diversity. One channel through which educators hope to achieve such a goal is through the new digital technology that enables students to demonstrate and use various activities (Inoue, 2006, p.63, 66).

But despite increased numbers in minority student enrollment, the rate of enrollment fails to match up to the type of cultural change that has been taking place, especially among the Latinos or Hispanics. Increasing minority faculty could be the leading factor that would help realize a type of academic change capable of effective influence on the growing ethnic population. In 1995 for example, enrollments to graduate school reflected a 6.8 percent increase but overall Latino graduates in 1996 made up only 4.2 percent of the total graduate population, while doctoral degrees awarded to Latinos were a mere 3 percent of the total US doctoral population (Ibarra, 2001, p.11).


Considering the diversity in the distribution of the labor force is crucial to every organization as this plays an important role in the delivery of public services, decision-making, and positive outcomes. This can be done by emphasizing the values of the diversity of the workplace to public managers, administrators, and service delivery workforce to help them appreciate diversity, its management, and also have a clear understanding of the same (Rice, 2004, p.68). For leaders in higher education, the most important task is to evaluate how equal representation can be achieved on American campuses without interfering with the values that come with diversity. Affirmative Action has already been recognized as a valuable system of equal representation but new ways need to be developed that will value diversity in such a way that it becomes more productive to the system of higher education than any measures that have been taken against it (Ibarra, 2001, p.xi).


Aronson, J. (2002). Improving academic achievements: Impact of psychological factors on education. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Cahn, S. (2002). The affirmative action debate. London, UK: Routledge.

Crosby, F. and VanDeVeer, C. (2000). Sex, race, and merit: Debating affirmative action in education and employment. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Gandara, P., Orfield, G., and Horn, C. (2006). Expanding opportunity in higher education: Leveraging promise. Mesa, AZ: SUNNY Press.

Ibarra, R. (2001). Beyond affirmative action: Reframing the context of higher education. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Inoue, Y. (2006). Technology and diversity in higher education: New challenges. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Inc (IGI).

Kellough, J. (2006). Understanding affirmative action: Politics, discrimination, and the search for justice. Washington DC, NW: Georgetown University Press.

Rice, M. (2004). Diversity and public Administration: Theory, issues, and perspectives. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Weisskopf, T. (2004). Affirmative action in the United States and India: A comparative perspective. London, UK: Routledge.