Most Americans Don't Think Race Should Factor Into College Apps, But That's Only Half The Story

From the Trump administration reversing Obama-era affirmative action policies last summer to the current lawsuit against Harvard University, conversations regarding the role of race in college admissions have been reignited across the country. If you’re wondering how many Americans support “affirmative action” and similar initiatives, Pew Research Center’s latest survey gives some insight into what Americans believe should be considered during college admission processes.

Almost three-in-four Americans (73 percent) say colleges “shouldn’t consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions,” according to Pew’s latest survey results. By comparison, 19 percent say it should be a “minor factor” and 7 percent say it should be a “major factor.” That number shifts significantly depending on demographics: more Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans say race should be at least a “minor factor” in college admissions. Eighteen percent of Black American, 11 percent of Hispanic Americans, and 14 percent of Asian Americans say race should be a “major factor” in college admissions. Just four percent of White Americans (and seven percent of Americans overall) say the same.

However, as The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, public view on affirmative action and race in college the admission process varies significantly depending on how the question is asked.

Gallup also released a survey on race and college admissions today, finding support for affirmative action is at an all-time high. Gallup’s question was phrased, “Do you generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities?”

In answering that question, 61 percent of Americans favor affirmative action for minorities. That support still varied depending on racial, political, and age demographics: 72 percent of Black Americans and 61 percent of Hispanic Americans support affirmative action for minorities, compared to 57 percent of non-Hispanic whites. 46 percent of Republicans are in favor, compared to 82 percent of Democrats.

Pew’s survey asked respondents, “Do you think each of the following should be a major factor, minor factor, or not a factor in college admissions?” Then, they were presented a list of multiple factors like high school grades, community service, gender, and race. “High school grades” was the only factor a majority of Americans said should be a “major factor” in the college admission process.

These two survey results countering each other is nothing new: public opinion regarded race-based policies shifts when specifics and language changes. As The Chronicle states, “In a 2016 survey, Gallup and Inside Higher Ed asked about the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas: “The Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that confirms that colleges can consider the race or ethnicity of students when making decisions on who to admit to the college. Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision?” The answer: 65 percent disapproved.”

In that 2016 case, public opinion on affirmative action isn’t what changed; it’s how the question was phrased.

To many Americans, “affirmative action” implies something “good,” if only because it uses the phrase “affirmative.” However, the idea of judging or assessing a person “based on race or ethnicity” could imply room for discrimination, hence people reluctance to support such policies. At their core, these conflicting majority opinions from Pew and Gallup show that public understanding of race in America is complex and not universal.

Affirmative action and admission policies that look at multiple factors of a student (including gender and race) is an attempt to acknowledge that systemic racism still very much exists. As Sally Chen, a senior at Harvard and student representative in the school’s affirmative action case, wrote in an op-ed for Bustle, “Harvard’s holistic race-conscious admissions allowed me to present myself as a whole person — beyond stereotypes — in a way that flat numbers could not.”

In the same way that “color blindness” fails to address the very real differences in what it means to be Black, White, Latinx, Native, or Asian in America. Are the intentions of “looking past” a person’s race good? Sometimes, yes. However, good intentions alone don’t solve a problem and ignoring that problem does even more harm, especially to the people who that problem currently hurts.

If these latest survey results show anything it's that the way we talk about race in the American education system matters, and its consequences don't end when the conversation stops.