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The Effects of Affirmative Action for Students

When considering applying to universities abroad, what thoughts come to mind? Specifically, thoughts about the support and assistance provided by the institutions, the connection to one's home country, and the expectations for cross-cultural experiences as a person of colour.

Affirmative action is a policy designed to enhance opportunities in both the workplace and educational sectors for under-represented groups, particularly those not commonly seen in leadership roles. It's frequently viewed as a method to address discrimination and favouritism against specific demographics.

Largely implemented in government and business settings, the issue has recently sparked heated debate, particularly following the Students For Fair Admissions vs. Harvard case. The US Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities could no longer consider race as a factor in specific admissions. Typically, policies governing this practice involve quotas, grants, scholarships, and failure to adhere to these guidelines could result in the loss of government funding and contracts.

boxes marked with alphabets  completing the word reservation

How Did It Start?

The roots of affirmative action can be traced back to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, aimed at eradicating discrimination—the fundamental driver of this movement. It was introduced to aid the significantly underrepresented segments of society, enabling their progress and providing them the platform that had long been denied. Despite an initial aim for more equal opportunities, the structure of these initiatives failed to significantly alter which individuals it benefited and who it opened doors for. A Supreme Court ruling found that race-based affirmative programs in college admissions violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and were deemed impermissible. In the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of North Carolina, the Court overturned prior precedents set in Grutter v. Bollinger and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which had previously allowed admissions decisions to consider race to a certain extent.

Some of the earliest instances of affirmative action date back to 1983 when President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12432. This order mandated every federal agency with substantial procurement or grant-making authority to create a Minority Business Enterprise development plan, aimed at ensuring better representation for individuals.

Originally, affirmative action served as a means to address conflict in deeply divided societies. However, its current connotation and stage of evolution differ significantly. In instances where it did not achieve its intended goals, such as in Brazil and India, there were challenges. In India, the reserved seats for lower caste members in government and educational institutions sparked violent resistance among urban upper-caste youth in the northern states. Nevertheless, in many cases, countries that have grappled with scenarios verging on civil unrest have often implemented affirmative action policies to address the needs of their citizens. These policies stem from empirical data showing that minorities have historically been deprived of equal resources and opportunities for progress.

Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa's Constitutional Court explains that countries incorporate affirmative action into their legislation "not to meet widely proclaimed human standards, but, regrettably, because the social and economic costs of change are surpassed by the social and economic costs of maintaining the status quo. In simple terms, affirmative action has often emerged as a hasty and compelled reaction to what are known as race riots" (Source: "Foreword" in Race and Inequality: World Perspectives on Affirmative Action, ed. Elaine Kennedy-Dubourdieu, Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006).

The cases in the USA over the years have demonstrated this point. Sociologist John David Skrentny observed and illustrated how affirmative action, due to its rushed implementation, became counterproductive to its intended causes, making it challenging to support (due to its lack of thorough consideration). Unlike countries such as India, Malaysia, and South Africa, where a constitutional foundation was provided for such programs, the US Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which appeared to be the cornerstone of legal actions against discrimination. The impact of affirmative action was evident as the population of Hispanics and Asians increased during that period, signalling a step in the right direction.

Affirmative action aims to address inherent inequality necessary for institutional change and mandated by law. Its primary purpose is to combat the systemic oppression faced by Black individuals, people of color, and various marginalized communities. These initiatives typically possess a structural resilience and a tendency to expand over time, offering a pathway for every individual. In theory, it's designed to meet needs and bridge gaps. However, in practice, it becomes more challenging. Despite being a temporary measure, the deeply rooted inequality and power imbalances in our society demand more time to narrow these gaps. This parallel is evident in India, where similar trends unfolded. Quotas were introduced to aid historically oppressed groups, such as the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), aiming to diminish the social divide entrenched in the caste system, Dalit oppression, and discrimination. India's quota system has significantly expanded over time, initially covering admissions into state colleges and professional schools, and then extending to appointments in state and central administrative services, ultimately encompassing positions across the administrative sector. The Supreme Court decision concluded that Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution by considering an applicant's race in their admissions process. While applicants are free to discuss race in their personal statements, schools are prohibited from making admissions decisions based on race. This ruling has wide-reaching implications for schools and universities, posing what Timothy Lynch, the vice president and general counsel for the University of Michigan, describes as 'just one of the challenges in life,' emphasizing the need to 'work harder' toward creating a more inclusive environment. The Law School Admission Council, responsible for administering the LSAT, confirmed that schools can utilize questions already present in the council's standard application, questions that many schools commonly use. These questions include:

  1. Are you or were you a first-generation college/university student?

  2. Will you be a first-generation law student?

  3. Since starting college, have you ever participated in a pre-law program designed for individuals underrepresented in the field of law (such as the pipeline program)? Enter the name of program(s).

Questions like these were employed by schools to gather information and potentially evaluate candidates. While there might not have been explicitly race-based admissions, there was a consciousness of the diverse range of students taking the exam and allowing them to share their experiences in an inclusive manner.

The abolishment of affirmative action, despite everything, didn't make a significant difference. Even with affirmative action in place, most students of colour didn't attend elite colleges.

People of different race, ethnicity, studying

As per the 2021 reports from the U.S. Department of Education, the majority of Black and Hispanic students enrolled in universities that admit over three-quarters of their applicants. However, there's an exception for Asian students, who, on average, are far more likely to attend elite universities. The percentage of all Asian students attending a university with an acceptance rate under 25 percent is more than three times that of Black, Hispanic, and white students. Selective schools shouldn't be the sole pathway for upward social mobility through higher education. All colleges and educational institutions should offer an equal array of beneficial resources and opportunities for campus life. This is where inequality becomes evident—a glaring red light signaling that the accessibility of resources and materials is largely determined by economic support or attendance at private Ivy League universities. It's crucial that programs at public schools receive sufficient funding and resources to pave the way for a positive career after graduation.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has consistently opposed race-conscious admissions. He believes that the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause was intended to foster a society that doesn't discriminate based on skin color and readily embraces diversity. However, he contends that this very diversity, according to him, accentuates differences. In one of his notable cases, he famously wrote –

The way to stop on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

There's a broader understanding at play here. Tokenism, evident in universities like Harvard and North Carolina, operates as a commercialized campaign. Here, they admit students to present themselves as bearers of a 'diverse student body,' intending to prepare for the all-inclusive campus life one might expect.

Legacy admissions form a significant part of Harvard and other Ivy League schools. Relatives or descendants of alumni are often granted preferential treatment throughout the admissions process, frequently leading to their acceptance into these universities. This practice creates a pool that is observed to be wealthier and predominantly white, sparking age-old debates about inequality stemming from these preferences. While many have criticized legacy admissions, traditional systems tend to resist change, particularly because alterations might disrupt established power structures. Consequently, those in power maintain their position, perpetuating advantages for the privileged. An analysis by the Harvard research group Opportunity Insights revealed that while white students make up 40% of Harvard’s total applicant pool, they represent nearly 70% of the university’s legacy applicants.

While Democrats celebrated the abolition of affirmative action, students hold mixed opinions. Some saw it as a way for their identities to be recognized and valued, even if subconsciously tokenized. The change is anticipated to reduce the number of Black and Latino students at elite universities, potentially perpetuating a predominantly white admissions process. This shift also affects international students aiming to apply to their preferred universities, altering the lens through which their applications are viewed. Affirmative action was initially introduced to bridge the gap between privileged and underprivileged individuals, but has it truly narrowed that gap?

The answer is pretty clear from the numbers one sees when reading the reports on the applicants’ diversity. Legacy admissions further reinforce the advantages of being white, widening the persistent gap. President Biden has proposed strategies to foster inclusive educational opportunities, but implementing a new system in place of the existing one will likely take a considerable amount of time. Affirmative action is commonly misunderstood as preference, but it was never about favoritism; it involved a holistic review of applicants' credentials and experiences. Real preference is epitomized by legacy admissions. Affirmative action aimed to combat systematic oppression, yet instances of bigotry on campus persist and discrimination arises over perceived 'slots' being taken, leading to the hurling of slurs. Ignoring the inherent discrimination in the educational system and normalizing preferential treatment for a particular group won't resolve the issue. Meanwhile, practices like the 'Jared Kushner Rule,' athletic recruitments, and other 'unseen measures' continue to grow."

The scales have never been tipped in favor of the persistently oppressed minorities; if anything, they are heavily weighted against them. The cessation of affirmative action will reveal which colleges truly uphold the ideals of equality and equity over time.