Access to Higher Education, Affirmative Action

  • Bridget Terry LongEmail author
Living reference work entry



Affirmative action refers to the use of preferences favoring individuals in a particular group when making a choice between candidates. In regards to higher education, it refers to preferences in admissions decisions, i.e., being more likely to choose students from a certain group over others, all else equal. Framed more broadly, affirmative action is a policy focused on creating differential processes or applying different standards in order to promote more equal access to higher education opportunity. The preferences that receive the most attention are those for specific racial or ethnic groups, but affirmative action policies could alternatively be tailored to favor other student traits, such as low-income status (i.e., “economic” affirmative action). Additionally, college admissions committees have been shown to show preferences for students with legacy status (having a parent or other relative who has attended the institution), athletes, and students of a certain gender.

The Use of Preferences in College Admissions in the USA

Most of the work on affirmative action has focused on the context of the USA. Although most American students attend the college of their choice and 80% of colleges are nonselective, there has been a great deal of concern about how admissions decisions are made and the extent to which preferences are given to certain groups. This question has become more important as differences in resources, government subsidies, and returns by level of college selectivity have been better documented (Hurlburt and Kirshstein 2012; Hoxby and Long 1999).

It is important to acknowledge that students’ decisions play an important role in determining the outcomes we observe in higher education. In other words, affirmative action, or lack thereof, will not alone determine whether colleges and universities are racially and ethnically diverse. Because students’ decisions, as well as their access to resources and opportunities, are also important determinants of campus racial and ethnic composition, postsecondary institutions require more than race-conscious policies in order to diversify their campuses. Persistent differences by race, income, or gender all along the educational pipeline, from primary to secondary education, imply substantial gaps in college access even in the face of racial preferences.

Although there is a perception that racial affirmative action is extensive in American higher education, the true role of race in college admissions is largely unclear. To discern the role of racial preferences, researchers have often compared the academic characteristics of students of different races at a particular college. The most popular indicator has been differences in the test scores of students of various races and ethnicities who have been accepted to the college. The implicit assumption of this approach is that test scores, often college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, are a good measure of preparation for college and a good predictor of future postsecondary performance. However, research shows that such tests have limited ability to predict who will do well in college. Research on the predictive ability of SAT scores on future college performance suggest older versions of the test explained only about one-third of a student’s first-year performance in college (Bridgeman et al. 2000). More recent versions of the SAT, which has been revised in response to critique and pressure from colleges, have higher correlations (Shaw 2015). But even these correlations may overstate the predictive ability of the SAT, as Rothstein (2004) finds that, after correcting for selection issues inherent in studies of predictive validity, the SAT’s contribution to predictions of freshman grade point averages are about 20% smaller than the usual methods imply. Notably, the predictive power of the SAT varies by student gender and race, with the exam having a strong correlation with future performance for some groups versus others. The test also varies in how well it predicts future student performance by institution (Aguinis et al. 2016), and as a result, the SAT is a better predictive tool for some schools than others. Research on the predictive power of the ACT, the other major college entrance exam in the USA, suggests only two of the four subtests are good predictors of positive college outcomes (Bettinger et al. 2013).

Additional critiques of college entrance exams include the fact that scores are easily influenced by test preparation and repeated sittings, which are both more prominent activities among more affluent students (Vigdor and Clotfelter 2003; Bound et al. 2009) and the assertion that such exams actually do not capture the material most often taught in high school or expected in college. To improve the predictive power of test scores, most suggest using it in combination with other academic measures, such as high school GPA.

When determining the extent of preferences in college admissions, it is important to understand that test scores are only one of many factors admissions committees consider in their decisions. Admissions committees in the USA, particularly at selective institutions tasked with choosing between thousands of applicants, take into account a wide variety of criteria, including student essays, recommendations from teachers, extracurricular activities, and leadership experiences. Also, beyond just using high school GPA, admissions committees also consider the rigor of the courses taken. These additional factors are difficult to quantify in an objective way for the large-scale analyses needed to discern whether and how preferences are being used by admissions committees. For example, Kane (1998) compares the college application decisions of high school graduates at elite institutions. Although he finds that students of color attended slightly better institutions than white students with similar background characteristics, he notes that this observation is based only on test score and high school GPA information. Given the importance of other factors, a comparison of the mean test scores of students from different racial or ethnic backgrounds who have been accepted by a college is not a sufficient way to determine whether and to what degree racial preferences have been used in admissions.

Looking beyond the most selective institutions, evidence of racial preferences at large, competitive (mostly public) colleges is stronger based on the admission processes employed by the institutions. With tens of thousands of applicants, large, public flagship universities do not have the time nor the capacity (i.e., admissions staff) to review millions of pieces of subjective material. Instead, many assign points to various aspects of an applicant’s file and then accept all students above a cutoff. The practice of assigning points to a student based on racial category alone is what was called into question in Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 US 244 (2003), a case brought forth by a student against the University of Michigan. It is unclear how many minority students would have been accepted without the points awarded for race. Moreover, without the racial category, many students of color may have alternatively received points for being from an underrepresented high school or having what the University of Michigan defined as socioeconomic disadvantage. However, the court ruled against the university for this specific practice, and since then, schools have generally moved towards treating factors like race, income, or being a first-generation college student as part of a holistic process rather than explicitly assigning points.

Challenges to Racial Preferences and Alternatives

In response to the challenges to affirmative action, several states have eliminated racial preferences in admissions. Instead of using preferences explicitly in admissions, several states have replaced affirmative action policies with percentage plans. Under these policies, the top proportion of a high school is given admission to some set of public universities. To understand the effects of these programs, researchers have compared levels of diversity before and after enactment. As the oldest program, Texas has been the focus of much of the research in this area. Several years after the introduction of the policy, researchers have found that the black enrollment level is still lower than before the end of affirmative action (Kain and O’Brien 2003). Quantitative analysis by Horn and Flores (2003) provide further analysis of the Texas, California, and Florida plans. They conclude that percentage plans alone do not serve as effective alternatives to affirmative action. The elimination of affirmative action in these states certainly had a chilling effect on the appeal of selective public colleges for students of color. The number of applications from minority students fell significantly at these schools, and therefore, the level of minority acceptances would have fallen even without the elimination of racial preferences. Instead, such policies must be coupled with recruitment, outreach, financial aid, and support programs targeted at underrepresented communities with large minority student populations.

As an alternative to race-based preferences, some have instead suggested preferences should be given to students on the basis of income. To address the paucity of low-income students at the most selective colleges in the USA, these advocates favor “economic affirmative action.” Cancian (1998) compares the effects of race-based programs to admissions policies based on class or economic status. Using the NLSY to simulate the effects of different admission scenarios, she finds that doing so would not produce the same results as programs that target race. Bowen et al. (2005) also consider the effects of considering economic diversity (i.e., income) in admissions. This research suggests that using preferences according to student income is not a good substitute for using racial preferences in admissions decisions. The reason stems from the fact that although many students of color are from low-income backgrounds, there are still many more white students who are poor and who would benefit from economic affirmative action. Bowen et al. (2005) suggest that selective colleges should to continue race-sensitive admissions policies while also working to enroll more students from low-income backgrounds.

Affirmative Action Outside of the USA

In the global context, countries beyond the USA have used affirmative action to promote equity in their tertiary education systems. For some, their policies are in response to historical discriminatory policies and practices, such as Apartheid in South Africa, the differential treatment of persons of different castes in India, and explicit favoritism towards white persons as in Brazil (Long and Kavazanjian 2012). Another justification relates to economics: this argument suggests that helping disadvantaged people will contribute to the economic efficiency of a country (Moses 2010). While increased access to tertiary education has been documented across the world, like in the USA, low-income, minority, and first-generation college student are the least likely to enroll and succeed in tertiary education.

Across nations and cultures, countries have used a diverse set of mechanisms and procedures in the name of affirmative action. One decision that must be made is about the approach, or how the country will designate the beneficiaries, which can be particularly challenging if the country does not have a good census or way of categorizing and tracking individuals by group. Countries could designate beneficiaries of redistributive policies according to membership in established groups (e.g., South Africa) or construct its own social categories to determine who is eligible for preferences (e.g., India). The form of affirmative action can also vary from being a preferential boost in admissions, which is defined as adding points to the ratings of a target group. Alternatively, some countries, like Malaysia and Brazil, use quota systems that allot a certain number of slots to members of the target group. For example, a policy in India mandated that 49.5% of seats be reserved for students and faculty members of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other “backward” classes (Deshpande 2006; Gupta 2006). The strength of the policy also varies across countries. In some places, preference is only given to the target group in a case of equally qualified candidates. Other countries have much strong policies and exert preferences that result in choosing the disadvantaged group over other candidates regardless of qualifications.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard Graduate School of EducationCambridgeUSA