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Affirmative Action: The Key to the American Dream

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Affirmative action is more than just an ambiguous phrase scattered amongst college admissions pages. For many students, it is a golden ticket for a valuable education that would otherwise be unable to achieve. The term affirmative action is incorrectly interpreted by many high school students. The National Conference of State Legislatures broadly defines it as an effort institutions take to actively improve opportunities for historically excluded groups in American society. Gaining traction during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, affirmative action intended to provide an equal playing field for minority groups and women in education. When it became known that “only five percent of undergraduate students, one percent of law students, and two percent of medical students in the country were African American” (Affirmative Action), colleges began adopting affirmative action policies to increase admission rates of underrepresented groups. In the early days of this policy, many assumed that it would be a temporary fix to “redress inequality in the workplace and college classroom; though once minorities and women were on an equal footing with White males, there would be no reason to promote affirmative action” (Cooper). Soon, however, it was clear that there was no quick and easy way to achieve equality for underrepresented groups.


Despite its good intentions, affirmative action has a long history of controversy arguing the righteousness of the policy. While there is an endless debate on the merits of affirmative action, there is no denying its exceptional implementation. An analysis run by the National Center of Education Statistics reports that in 2013 the immediate college enrollment percentage of high school graduates by ethnicity was sixty-seven, sixty-six, and fifty-seven for Caucasians, Hispanics, and African Americans respectively (Affirmative Action).  Still, some critics argue that affirmative action is detrimental to the minority students and to everybody around them as well. While aspects of these claims may be true, these arguments are overwhelmingly fallacious. Rather, affirmative action allows for underrepresented minorities’ applications to be considered in perspective with their background, increases diversity on campus, and provides an equal opportunity for all students to receive a quality education. Thus, affirmative action should continue to be enforced in all universities and colleges.


A common argument against the use of affirmative action is that it will lead to a divided student body due to alienation of students from minority groups. A recent study conducted by economist Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University found that “students tend to befriend those who are similar to themselves in academic achievement.” This is a big contributor to the patterns of racial and ethnic self-segregation visible on many campuses. Many in opposition claim that if a school increases its affirmative-action efforts in ways that “expand these gaps, it is likely to end up with more self-segregation and fewer cross-race friendships, and therefore with even stronger feelings of alienation among black students” (qtd. in Sander). However, these misconceptions are far from true. People generally become friends with others that have similar interests and personality traits to them. Rarely does race or ethnicity play a conscious part in forming social cliques in school. Still, critics say that this is only one neglection affirmative action students may feel in everyday life. Inside the classroom, underrepresented minorities may also be disregarded by faculty as well. It has been proven that teachers have varied expectations for students from different ethnic origins. In fact, “teachers who hold negative prejudiced attitudes appear more predisposed to evaluate ethnic minority students as being less intelligent and having less promising prospects for their school careers” (Hernandez). These prejudiced attitudes are said to be responsible for the ethnic achievement gap in their classrooms. Even though educators may have preconceived notions about certain races, this bias often dissipates when students’ true ability is displayed in class. Ethnicity may be the initial way teachers judge their students but eventually, a student’s intelligence and capability is what leaves a lasting impression.


Although students may ultimately be evaluated by their competency and skills, many in opposition claim that affirmative action accepts lesser-qualified applicants to begin with. It is evident that in today’s college admissions process “skill and expertise are no longer the sole adjudicators of acceptance” (Kaufman). For underrepresented minorities, many universities have a set quota or range for the number of students they must accept from each particular group. Thus, if a school promises to double the number of African American students in its subsequent graduating class, it will have to “reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications” (Haidt). This is commonly known as the mismatch effect, as it yields a negative outcome for minority students because they are thrown into an environment for which they are unsuited for. A student who would flourish at “Wake Forest or the University of Richmond, instead finds himself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for him” (Sander). Coming in with significantly less academic preparation than nearly all of the classmates, it is nearly impossible for minority students to keep up with the rigor of the university. As a result, when affirmative-action beneficiaries are admitted to prestigious colleges for which they are not qualified by test scores and grade point averages, they are rarely academically competitive among other students “and fewer pass bar exams than if they had attended lower-ranked schools” (Strauss), where they would have been accepted regardless of preference. Therefore, it is not surprising that most minorities rank toward the bottom of their graduating class, and their dropout rates are higher than those of other ethnicities. Moreover, many believe that this contributes to an overall decrease in the competency of the student body as a result of the minority students who are not at par with their more talented peers.


The admittance of under qualified students solely on the basis of ethnicity has also sparked outcries of “reverse discrimination” against Asians and other non-minority groups. College admissions ignite deep anxieties particularly for Asian families, who spend more than any other demographic on education. Asian Americans, by percentage, “make up more of the student body at elite universities than they do of the population as a whole” (Shyong). Thus, many have criticized affirmative action policies for discriminating against Asian American applicants to alter these ratios in favor of underrepresented minorities. Many college experts have tried to quantify this “reverse discrimination” that supposedly takes place against Asians. In a presentation to rising high school seniors, admissions counselor Ann Lee, shows three columns of numbers that “try to measure how race and ethnicity affect acceptances by using the term ‘bonus’ to describe how many extra SAT points an applicant's race is worth.”  African Americans receive a bonus of two hundred and thirty points, while Hispanics receive a slightly lower addition of one hundred and eighty five points. However, the statistic for Asian Americans is the most startling, as Lee reports that these students are actually penalized 50 SAT points (qtd. in Shyong). Yet, this study should be taken with a grain of salt as there is no scientific way of verifying these farfetched conclusions. Ann Lee also has no substantial authority or credibility to present such unsubstantiated data. Furthermore, these numbers may also be slightly biased since the author is Asian himself. Some Asian Americans have also gone as far as to go to court with accusations of reverse discrimination. A new lawsuit filed against Harvard University “cites an Asian-American student who was denied acceptance despite being valedictorian of a competitive high school, achieving a perfect ACT score and a perfect score of 800 on two of the SAT II subject exams, and participating in numerous extracurricular and volunteer activities” (Paulson). While this case may seem to exemplify the ‘reverse discrimination’, it fails to mention other critical parts of the student’s application such as teacher recommendations and the personal statement which may have been the reasons for the student’s rejection. Reverse discrimination is a largely overdramatized issue that is barely prominent in the workforce as well. In fact, “of 91,000 employment discrimination cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, less than 2 percent are reverse discrimination cases” (Shelton). Even though many students believe reverse discrimination is an immense issue, it is actually only a minute concern in the corporate world and in the admissions process.


Nevertheless, while naysayers focus on the limited drawbacks of affirmative action, they fail to recognize the positive impacts this policy is facilitating. Affirmative action allows admissions officers to consider a student’s application in context with their background and upbringing. Stanford alumni Ben Kaufman states that “there is absolutely no ‘reverse discrimination’ present when a child of Mexican immigrants with a 3.5 GPA who had to work two jobs through high school is offered admission over an incredibly comfortable kid like us with a 3.9; there's only recognition of vast differences in background and advantage.” Undoubtedly, it is even impractical to compare two applicants that hail from the same state. An African American student from Harlem and an Asian applicant living in the heart of Manhattan have not been exposed to the same opportunities, and for that matter, have barely anything in common at all. Affirmative action policies “inhibit stereotyping and provide a sense of accountability” (Hernandez) on the admissions office to view each application in its entirety by considering the large disparity in the upbringings underrepresented minorities have in comparison to their affluent competitors. Although they do not intend to, many admissions officers hold a subconscious belief that minorities are not as impressive as other competitive applicants, and immediately write them off as unsuitable candidates for acceptance. Race-conscious affirmative action programs provide admissions officers the added reminder to acknowledge and address implicit bias that may inadvertently be occurring. To further prevent this type of thinking, affirmative action policies can act as a “pair of corrective lenses for decision makers with a long history of race-based stereotyping.” Affirmative action does not grant students of color acceptance to any university of their choosing; it simply permits applicants of color to be seen and thus considered fairly in the first place (Hernandez). By providing admissions’ officers the opportunity to consider the accomplishments and potential of applicants with respect to their largely contrasting lifestyle, it ultimately neutralizes any implicit biases.


By allowing admissions officers to consciously consider every aspect of a student’s application, affirmative action allows for increased diversity on campus, and prevents the formation of a stagnant and homogenous student body. Imagine that a university only admitted students who were in the top two percent income bracket, and accepted only white applicants. The campus would not only be eminently monotonous, but would also not prepare its students for the corporate world, where people of all colors are employed at most companies. Without diversity, college students would get trapped in the college bubble: “the idea that, for four years, life only exists within the bounds of campus.” Once students completed their four years at school, the bubble would eventually pop, forcing them into the harsh reality of the real world after being sheltered for so long (Kerby). For many who lack exposure to racial diversity, this can be a tough transition. However, students who are accustomed to a community of color are better prepared for the workforce, as they are already familiar with collaborating with different types of people. Affirmative action also constructs a culturally-rich and vibrant graduating class that promotes an exchange of varying perspectives. As many students coming from different environments and upbringings, people are introduced to new viewpoints and outlooks that may be foreign to them on a diverse campus. Professor Redden, an acclaimed teacher at University of Michigan Law School advocates for affirmative action as he has personally observed its favorable effects in his classroom. The University of Michigan saw its percentage of African American, Hispanic and Native American students increase to “39.6 percent last year, which created vastly different groups of people on campus, and a more well-rounded student body.” When assigning group projects, Professor Redden noticed students of all ethnicities collaborating and working collectively as a team, which fostered creativity and innovation, ultimately leading to a better final product. Students have become more intelligent and culturally-aware as they have learned to consider points of view other than their own. Rather than worsening segregation in university life, racial diversity has improved intergroup relations and has produced higher levels of academic achievement for all ethnicities.


Affirmative action also provides underrepresented minorities an access to opportunities that they otherwise would not have. The socioeconomic ladder is difficult to climb, especially starting from all the way at the bottom. African Americans and Hispanics make up the majority of the bottom rung on this ladder, and while “other groups experience hardship and discrimination, few non-black and Latino young people suffer handicaps of similar intensity” (Strauss). To move up the ladder, attaining an education is an essential element. However, underrepresented minorities would never get access to the leading universities without the assistance of affirmative action. It is misguided for circumstances that are out of a student’s control to dictate their future. While minority students may be slightly less impressive in comparison to their Asian American competitors who devote their entire life into building the perfect resumé, they still deserve a chance to gain acceptance into prestigious colleges. Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican first-generation college student, has personally experienced the benefits of affirmative action. Growing up in the public housing project of the southern Bronx presented Sotomayor a number of challenges, and during the application process, applying to the Ivy League schools seemed like a lost cause to her. Still, she hopefully applied to Princeton University under affirmative action and got accepted. Graduating with distinguished honors catapulted her to Yale Law school, and eventually led to her being the first Latina United States justice of the Supreme Court. When asked about her achievements Sotomayor modestly claims that, “I am an ordinary person ... blessed with extraordinary opportunities like the affirmative action policy which has allowed me to pursue my dreams” (qtd. in Keck). Without the help of affirmative action to initiate her journey, Sotomayor would never be in the position she is in today. This further enforces that affirmative action is a necessary policy to support underrepresented minorities in their academic endeavors so that they also have the chance to attend top-ranking colleges. Many other minorities have also felt the profound impact affirmative action has had on their life. Antonia Hernandez, now the president of the Legal Defense and Education Fund, explains how affirmative action was the key to open doors of possibility for her. In high school, Hernandez was capable student, but could never reach her full potential because she always struggled with financial instability and making ends meet for her family. During her senior year, Hernandez took a shot in the dark and sent her application to UCLA, where she was accepted with generous grants from the college not because of her academics, but because of her “burning determination, her drive, and willingness to work” (Cooper). By providing minorities equal access to quality education, affirmative action is upholding the prospect of the American Dream for everybody. This policy stands for justice and fairness to level the playing the field for applicants of all races.


Affirmative action is a matter of social equality. Rather than opposing it, the public should embrace a protocol that supports America’s underrepresented minorities and provides them the opportunities that more affluent students take for granted. Advocates of racial egalitarianism and minorities themselves, particularly believe in this special consideration for underrepresented groups. Affirmative action allows for the admissions committee to view applicants in perspective with their background and upbringing. This policy is vital because without it, Africans Americans and Latino students who live in poverty are deprived of an education and an opportunity to climb up the socioeconomic ladder. Critics may argue that it admits underrepresented minorities in college solely for the color of their skin, but this is a logical fallacy. Instead, society should view affirmative action as a beneficial policy to institute fair treatment of all races in the college admissions process. If we withhold a valuable education from certain races, they will never be able to reach their fullest potential and attain success. But, by pushing for affirmative action, we give students of all ethnic groups the golden ticket to achieve their goals and pursue their aspirations.




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