Understanding Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is a hot topic right now all across the country in light of the Fisher vs. University of Texas Supreme Court case. But what is affirmative action? Does it affect you?

What is Affirmative Action? Affirmative action is “a policy or program providing advantages for people of a minority group who are seen to have traditionally been discriminated against, with the aim of creating a more egalitarian society through preferential access to education.” Basically, groups that have historically been underrepresented in higher education can be given preference in college admission. Does this mean that all underrepresented minorities get to go to whatever college they want? No. What it means is that if you have two equally qualified applicants, one of whom is an underrepresented minority and the other of whom is not, admissions officers can give preference to the minority student.

What Is an Underrepresented Minority? In higher education today, typically black, Latino/a, and Native American students are considered underrepresented in colleges and universities. However, this is not true of all colleges and universities. At some colleges, particularly technical colleges like Rose-Hulman or Rensselaer, women are still underrepresented in both the applicant pools and student bodies. There, women will benefit from affirmative action. At a number of colleges, particularly small liberal arts schools like Oberlin, Asian students are underrepresented. It varies from school to school. But typically, black, Latino/a, and Native American students constitute underrepresented minorities.

What About Mixed-Race Kids? Race is entirely self-reported on college applications. Students can check all applicable racial and ethnic categories or they can check none. It’s up to the student to identify and articulate their own race. The rule of thumb typically is that if you are 1/4 anything then you “count” as part of that race. However, that rule is neither necessarily true nor fair. Again, it’s all self-reported. Colleges will not, except in the case of Native American students, ask for any document that qualifies you as part of your race. Native American students often have it a little tougher. Some colleges require that students provide documentation that they are registered with a tribe. Others treat Native students the same as other racial minorities. It all depends on the school. Please though, do not lie when you’re marking off race on your applications because of some perceived benefit. The purpose of affirmative action is to give students who presently and historically have faced discrimination a fair chance at a college education. If you’re wondering whether or not you are part of a minority group, odds are you aren’t. For instance, if you are a white South African, you are not black or African-American; you are white as defined by federal law.

Do All Colleges Use Affirmative Action? No. Most private institutions use affirmative action, but check with each school’s admissions office if you’re curious. For public institutions, it’s more variable. Seven states have outright legal bans against affirmative action including:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • Washington

Georgia and Texas currently use race-neutral admissions policies like the 10% rule where all students in the top 10% of their high schools are automatically guaranteed admission to the University of Texas — Austin (students are admitted to the remaining slots through an affirmative action admissions process). However, all of this could change soon. If Fisher wins her suit against the State of Texas, affirmative action could be illegal in public colleges and universities across the country. While private institutions would still have the right to make race a factor in admissions, state-funded colleges wouldn’t have that option.

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