As a new analysis from the New York Times shows, even though affirmative action has been in place for decades, black and Hispanic students remain underrepresented in most colleges in the United States. In fact, black and Hispanic people are even more underrepresented in many colleges now than they were 35 years ago.
The Times’ data looks at numbers of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic students across freshman populations in universities, comparing them to the share of the respective college-age population among each race. Their analysis reveals that among Ivy Leagues, liberal arts school, and public universities alike, black and Hispanic people are significantly underrepresented in student body populations. Both Asian American and white students are significantly overrepresented among college freshman, relative to the overall population in the United States.
The overall number of students who are black and Hispanic has increased since 1980. However, that increase has not been as significant as the population increase, especially among the rise in the number of young Hispanics in the U.S. Although 15 percent of the college-age population in the U.S. is comprised of black young adults, black students only represent six percent of freshmen enrollment. That gap has widened by three percent since 1980. Among Hispanics, that same gap has tripled from a three percent disparity in 1980 to a nine percent disparity today.
“Blacks and Hispanics have gained ground at less selective colleges and universities but not at the highly selective institutions,” Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, told the New York Times. The gap between the percent college-age black and Hispanic people and the percent of black and Hispanics enrolled in Ivy Leagues has widened in the last 35 years.
So, Does That Mean Affirmative Action Should Go Away Because It Isn’t Working?
Hardly. Is affirmative action as it stands completely effective? This new data shows quite the opposite. However, getting rid of affirmative action programs doesn’t solve the already-existing problem of underrepresentation; it makes it worse.
In 1998, University of California campuses instated a ban on affirmative action. In turn, the percent of black and Hispanic students decreased dramatically. “The number of Hispanic and black freshmen on the University of California campuses declined immediately after California’s affirmative action ban took effect, especially at the most sought-after campuses,” Stephen Handel, associate vice president for University of California undergraduate admissions, told the Times. Though affirmative action has been reinstated, campuses like UC Berkeley still show the ban’s effects in population demographics. Today, 15 percent of Berkeley's population is black or Hispanic. That number was 24 percent prior to the ban.
Who Is Affirmative Action Actually Helping?
White women. Though conversations usually focus on race, affirmative action also includes provisions regarding gender. And the numbers show it’s working: women are comparatively more educated and successful at work after decades of affirmative action. A 1995 report by the California Senate Government Organization Committee showed that white women held more managerial jobs than Asian American, black, and Hispanic women.
Despite being among the most benefited, white women remain some of affirmative action’s biggest opponents. As reported by Vox, a 2014 study found nearly 70 percent of white women “either somewhat or strongly opposed affirmative action.”
The argument that affirmative action undermines merit doesn’t hold up against the facts. As Vox states, multiple studies have debunked an idea asserted by Justice Antonin Scalia that black students aren’t prepared for elite institutions, thus ultimately being hurt by affirmative action. Again, there is simply no evidence for this.
How Do We Fix The Gap?
First, by acknowledging that there is still a gap. Regardless of what the Trump administration says regarding “reverse racism” and affirmative action, the facts remain: black and Hispanic people are not equally represented in U.S. colleges. This is tied into many issues, institutional racism being one of them.
As the Times analysis states, “affirmative action increases the numbers of black and Hispanic students at many colleges and universities, but experts say that persistent underrepresentation often stems from equity issues that begin earlier.” Affirmative action in universities doesn’t solve the disparities in early and secondary education for black and Hispanic students. “A cascading set of obstacles all seem to contribute to a diminished representation of minority students in highly selective colleges,” said David Hawkins, an executive director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in an interview with the New York Times.
We cannot fix a problem if we are not in agreement that the problem exists in the first place. If we want representation among black and Hispanic students to get better in the next 35 years, we need to start by acknowledging the facts today.