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Affirmative action on college campuses is endangered

Data: National Center for Education Statistics; Chart: Connor Rothschild/Axios

Affirmative action, which for 60 years has increased the number of students of color at American universities, is on the chopping block. A case accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian applicants has made it to the Supreme Court, and the court could elect to get rid of the 60-year-old policy.

Why it matters: While that's an unlikely outcome, it could push colleges to come up with better ways of promoting diversity on campus rather than just looking at race, says Mitchell Chang, an education professor at UCLA.


  • One possible alternative would be for colleges to look more closely at the high schools students are applying from and admit applicants from a diverse range of schools: rich and poor, as well as predominantly non-white.

Quick take: More than 70% of Americans, regardless of race, see college and post-graduate degrees as a way to succeed professionally and financially, a newly released Axios/Ipsos poll on inequities in higher education found.

But here's a hard truth: If we did away with affirmative action, higher education would be a lot more homogenous — primarily dominated by white and Asian students.

  • The University of California system got rid of affirmative action through a ballot proposition in the late 1990s, and the effect was immediate, the New York Times reports. Black and Latino enrollment at the top UC schools — Berkeley and Los Angeles — fell sharply, and those students were largely replaced by white and Asian students.
  • When UCLA Law went with a race-neutral admissions system, enrollment of Black and Native American students fell by more than 70%.

The state of play: Black, Latino and Native American students are far likelier than their white and Asian peers to have lower standardized test scores and lower grades — too often because they attend underfunded and under-resourced high schools.

  • White, East Asian and South Asian students are also likelier to have access to advanced placement courses and standardized test prep.
  • Many students of color, including many who are the first in their family to pursue higher education, first turn to community colleges to boost their careers.
  • Meanwhile, college costs have tripled for public four-year colleges and more than doubled for public two-year schools and private, nonprofit four-year schools, while median family incomes for the lowest quintile have grown 21% in the past 30 years.

By the numbers: College campuses are more diverse than they were a few decades ago, but there's still a wide racial enrollment gap.

  • In 2019, 89.9% of recent Asian high school graduates, 66.9% of recent white graduates and 63.4% of Latino graduates were enrolled in college, compared with 50.7% of Black graduates, per Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The bottom line: Ending affirmative action decreases the number of students of color at top colleges and their chance at higher lifetime earnings.

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