Future of Affirmative Action Programs Uncertain

Created: 10 July, 2018
Last update: 20 April, 2022

By Marielena Castellanos

(Photo by Andrea Lopez-Villafaña)

Getting accepted into Harvard University and other prestigious universities could become harder for students of color after the Trump administration recently eliminated 24 guidance documents on a number of education issues, including policies allowing schools and universities to consider race as a factor in admissions.

The recommendations from the Obama era were meant to encourage diversity in elementary and secondary schools and on college campuses.

Thandeka Chapman, associate professor of education studies at UC San Diego, explained why schools use race in the admissions process.

“The ability to consider race in admissions policies helps public universities to mirror the racial demographics of the constituents in their particular state, therefore distributing the positive outcomes of higher education across different communities in every state,” Chapman said. “Many private institutions have social justice missions that compel them to strive to eliminate social and economic inequality, while other institutions may be motivated by future workforce needs.”

“Lastly, and importantly, proponents of racial diversity in higher education understand that colleges and universities are optimum (and often final) spaces for people to learn about the historic and current experiences of different groups of people and our collective humanity through academic and intimate social networks. These learning experiences allow all students to grow individually and collectively as American citizens who will spend their lives in racially diverse settings,” Chapman added.

The change could reverse the direction for schools and colleges as it allows for race to be considered as little as possible.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the move was an effort to restore the “rule of law,” and “to put an end to unnecessary or improper rulemaking.”

The recommendations don’t have the force of law, but help schools protect themselves from lawsuits if they choose to use them in their admission policies.

The Trump administration itself has expressed unease about using race in admissions decisions, and removing the guidelines could raise the possibilities of schools being sued.

Isidro Ortiz , a Chicano studies professor at San Diego State University, explained what the recent changes reflect about the Trump administration on race.

“Dog whistle politics continue to be the norm for Trump; during the campaign he informed white voters that he would be their president and he is affirming the claim; He needs to maintain the base and playing the race card is a sure fire way of doing so,” Ortiz said.

The decade long debate over using race in the admissions process is mostly centered around admissions into elite schools and universities to which Latino and black students are still underrepresented.

The Huffington Post reported last year opponents fail to realize that minorities, especially people of color, still face institutional disadvantages when it comes to being admitted to certain schools. And though race isn’t the only identifying factor in admission processes, people of color are often accused of being unqualified for high-performing schools and taking white students’ places – even though Ivy League schools admit more legacy students than black students.

Last year The New York Times looked at the racial and ethnic makeup of 100 highly elite schools. They found Latino students, who make up 22 percent of college-age Americans, made up 13 percent of freshmen at those schools. Black students, who make up 15 percent of college-age Americans, made up just 6 percent of freshmen at these schools. Whites and Asian-Americans, meanwhile, were overrepresented.

During 1980’s the federal government toughened standards for how colleges and universities could use race in admissions. The numbers for Latino and black students declined during those times.

Ortiz noted what the changes mean for students of color.

“Students of color now face new threats to access higher education and the prospects for equity in higher education for these students is now jeopardized even more; without student mobilization institutions of higher education may reduce their efforts to promote diversity,” Ortiz said.

The changes come as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing vote on race issues, is retiring. In 2016, Kennedy voted to uphold the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions program in the Fisher v. University of Texas case, which barely conserved race-based admissions. With someone who could be more conservative than Kennedy joining the Court, the future of Affirmative Action programs hangs in the balance.

The Trump administration is also looking at a federal lawsuit that claims Harvard University’s undergraduate admissions practices discriminate against
Asian-American students.

In 2017 the New Yorker reported at selective colleges Asians are demographically overrepresented minorities, but they are underrepresented relative to the applicant pool.

The New Yorker also reported last year students of color were the majority of the entering class at Harvard. The enrollment of Asian-American students was the highest ever, at more than twenty-two per cent, with the increase cutting into the number of white students admitted, instead of black or Latino, enrollment.

Chapman notes schools in general work towards achieving a diversified student body.

“I believe that the majority of public and private universities in the United States are committed to developing and maintaining admissions policies that create racially diverse student bodies. The benefits of establishing a racially diverse student body in both K-12 and higher education are extensive and well documented,” Chapman said.

With the elimination of the guidelines on race and a conservative joining the Supreme Court, it could become easier for conservatives to overturn the current precedent and put and end to the use of race in the admissions process.

Moving forward, Ortiz said, “Communities of color and their allies in the white community must continue to mobilize exploring all possible ways of preserving the gains from earlier eras and continuing to push for structural change at all levels; a new generation is learning that the struggle for social justice is eternal.”