The race for college admissions: Explaining the process of affirmative action

Infographic by Maddie Shrager

Senior Jason Hong sits in front of his computer, a web browser open to the Common Application website. He looks at his applications and begins to sift through all the necessary information colleges are asking him to provide. The questions share a similar monotony that quickly becomes tiring: Why are you the best choice? What can you bring to the university? What experiences do you have that would make you a great asset? And then, his eyes drift to the very last inquiry at the bottom.

What is your race?

As a kid, the man-made walls of division have yet to be built. The borders of what make people different—age, gender, race—are yet to be imposed. As one grows older, however, it is hard to ignore the categories society boxes people into. No matter the differing views on it, the words “Affirmative Action” ignite a blaze of various opinions and emotions. As one of the many hot button topics in politics, being informed on its origin and application to the modern day can help ease the tension.


Defining factors such as race, gender or sexual orientation may seem irrelevant to one’s qualifications for a job or college application, but in the United States, taking them into account is a practice referred to as Affirmative Action.

Affirmative Action is when “an organization takes specific actions to meet the needs of individuals who come from classes of people who have been historically discriminated against, or who are under-represented because of discrimination,” Otterbein Vice President for Enrollment Management Jefferson R. Blackburn-Smith said. In other words, Affirmative Action is a government-sanctioned procedure that allows for the extra consideration of a person who may be subject to discrimination.

Originally, Affirmative Action was created to desegregate colleges and workplaces to better represent the diversity of the general population. President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order in 1961, during the Civil Rights Movement, that established Affirmative Action, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). This would allow for more minorities to have access to opportunities they were previously denied, such as attending college.

“The use of race in admissions was first codified in law through the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision and recodified (with limitations) more recently in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger,” Blackburn-Smith said.

According to the NSCL, the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision from 1978 outlawed racial quotas but upheld the consideration of race in college admissions to achieve a diverse student body. This set the precedent for using race in admissions decisions, according to Bowling Green State University political science professor Kathleen Bolter.

In Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, two Supreme Court cases, the plaintiffs alleged that the University of Michigan unfairly discriminated against students on the basis of race. Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz, both caucasian, applied to the University of Michigan at different times but were rejected. Grutter and Gratz both felt as if they were qualified for the university and cited the school unfairly considered people of color over caucasians. The court ruled to uphold Affirmative Action, but it may not be the “deciding factor,” according to Bolter.

“Those decisions said race-neutral efforts to achieve diversity are best, but when they don’t work, race may be considered if done in a holistic review process,” Blackburn-Smith said.

Although Affirmative Action was created for places of work, colleges began to adopt the policy to increase campus diversity. It was an effort to provide education for socioeconomically-disadvantaged minorities who may have been denied an education in the past, thus increasing the opportunities available to them.

“Historically, how Affirmative Action should be implemented was quite fuzzy and much of it was left up to the interpretation of workplaces and universities,” Bolter said.

The lack of clarity on how to enforce Affirmative Action has created much debate. Recently, the act has come under fire from Asian-Americans who allege that Harvard discriminates against them, and Students for Fair Admissions is the group bringing the trial to the United States Federal District Court. For instance, at Harvard, 23 percent of students admitted are Asian-American, 50 percent white or other and the remaining 27 percent is both African Americans and Latinos combined, according to CNN.

“The case against Harvard is very interesting because the primary claim is that Harvard has set an unofficial quota on the number of Asian students it admits, which would be illegal under the University of California v. Bakke ruling,” Bolter said.

According to Business Insider, Michael Wang, a proponent of Students for Fair Admissions, presents a personal reason for joining the coalition. Wang was rejected by every Ivy League school he applied to, which is shocking considering his perfect ACT score, 2230 SAT score and 4.67 GPA. Wang also sang at Barack Obama’s first inauguration and participated in national speech, debate and math competitions.

Wang is just one of many Asian-Americans who feel that Ivy Leagues, especially Harvard, have discriminated unfairly against them. As a result of the case, Harvard revealed that it uses a ranking system to compare prospective students in a variety of subject areas.

The personality ranking test Harvard utilizes has five categories of ranking: academic, extracurricular, athletic, personal and “overall.” They also take into account teacher recommendations and an alumni interview if it is present. The investigation prompted by the case revealed that Harvard admissions ranked Asian-Americans highest academically but lowest personality-wise, according to CNN.

The personality category includes traits such as courage and likeability, according to the Associated Press (AP). Students can receive scores from one to five, one being “outstanding” and five being “questionable personality traits.” The rating system is loosely defined in Harvard’s policies, which allows for even more speculation, according to the AP.

“Low Asian-American scores arise from a thinly veiled racial stereotype about Asian Americans," the Students for Fair Admissions said in an interview with CNN.

Hong, a potential Harvard applicant, said that he feels the personality rating is too subjective for it to be truly representative of a student.

“I can't say it came as a surprise really. I mean, I knew that they were always considering race as a factor, but with the recent case, what came out with the personal rating system was pretty surprising,” Hong said. “It doesn’t feel very accurate to me. You have some interviews being conducted but not for all students, and most of the personality traits ware coming from counselor descriptions and recommendations. If you spend eight minutes per student, you're not going to get a good image of what one person is like. So a lot of these descriptions can be skewed one way or another without actually factoring in the person.”

As a result of this new information, Hong has re-evaluated how he portrays himself on his college applications.

“With the personality rating being factored in, colleges want to value either extroverted traits or more recently they're now focusing on maturity and the ability to reflect on yourself. So I'm trying to show colleges that,” Hong said.

The case was heard in the Boston Federal District Court, and ended on Nov. 2. The judge presiding over the case, Allison Burroughs, is expected to release her opinion in early 2019, and both sides have announced they will appeal the decision—opening up the path for the case to make its way to the Supreme Court.


“Affirmative Action was developed to overcome a long legacy of racial oppression, including slavery, discrimination and apartheid, as well as discrimination against people because of their nationality or religion. It was intended to promote equal opportunity for minority groups who were competing against the majority white population in employment and education,” Columbus State Political Professor Robert Fitrakis said.

In a nutshell, Affirmative Action was intended to level the playing field for those historically setback due to factors such as race, color, religion, sex or national origin. According to the National Conference of State Legislators website, only five percent of undergraduate students, one percent of law students and two percent of medical students were African American in 1965. As a result, the executive order decreed government contractors to use Affirmative Action policies in their hiring to increase the number of minority employees.

According to American Progress, women make up nearly half, and African Americans make up nearly one-third of the modern day workforce. However, some still feel Affirmative Action can address the socioeconomic disparities minorities experience in the country. Research from Wake Forest University sociology professor Joseph Soares has found that every family not in the top 10 percent of income distribution are disadvantaged by standardized testing.

“The test is a more reliable predictor of demographics than it is of academic performance. High school grades are not as compromised by social demographics as test scores and test scores correlate with family income, which means the higher one's family income, the higher one's test score,” Soares said in an interview with NC Policy Watch.

Currently about 78 percent of universities consider standardized test scores as important factors in admission, according to Paired with Soares’s study and the fact that race/ethnic minorities are 47 percent more likely to be low-income, this puts many of the minorities affected by Affirmative Action at risk. As a result of this, many believe that Affirmative Action is needed.

“No one claims it's a perfect policy, but ignoring facets of a person's identity or pretending that those factors do not affect a person's life is problematic,” Dr. Abigail Matthews, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Miami University, said.

While there are some supporters of Affirmative Action, others question its effectiveness. Despite the policy being in place for decades, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, according to a New York Times analysis.

“Historically, rich, white males have always used their privilege to practice their own unnamed version of Affirmative Action. This is called legacy. This gave preferences to people applying for college whose fathers and grandfathers had gone to Ivy League colleges and other elite institutions,” Fitrakis said.

Other scholars follow the “mismatch” theory proposed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which states that Affirmative Action may disadvantage the minorities it was set to help by placing them in schools and jobs that are higher than their ability, thus giving them a hard time.

“A student who gains special admission to a more elite school on partly non-academic grounds is likely to struggle more. The question is how large these effects are and whether their consequences outweigh the benefits of greater prestige,” UCLA Law Professor Richard Sander published in a Stanford Law Review article.

Junior Rafee Zafar said he believes that a person’s capability is more complex than any one characteristic, and therefore he feels that Affirmative Action can be harmful to students.

“If people want equality and equal opportunity, then colleges should not be looking at income and race or any other determining factors. What should matter is a person’s work ethic, their personality and what they have done in a proven record. The Harvard case is no different than any other case. If you want true equality, then colleges should be blind to all these factors,” Zafar said. “If we try to look for commonalities among each other, then why are we separating people by their differences and giving them different opportunities?”

Due to Affirmative Action being a loose amalgamation of different institutional and employer practices, gathering proper factual data on its effectiveness is difficult. Factors like socioeconomic status have to be taken into account. However, the general consensus has been that women and minorities have benefited from Affirmative Action. Whether it is at the rate that was hoped or the best way for success is up for debate.

“Certainly it could be more effective. The United States could adopt the policies of the European Union, which has approved a plan to ensure that 40 percent of corporate boards in Europe are women by the year 2020,” Fitrakis said.

Affirmative Action is a polarized subject both socially and politically. Taking a look at the right numbers and staying as up-to-date as possible can help one develop informed opinions, no matter what they may be.


It is safe to say that both the proponents and the opponents of Affirmative Action know that its definition and implementation are constantly evolving and elastic.

To understand why Affirmative Action breeds a plethora of perspectives, one first needs to acknowledge how colleges go about the admissions process. Lydie Dorelien, an admissions counselor at Otterbein University, deals with this process on a daily basis.

“We look at grade trends, whether a student is taking ‘college prep classes,’ the rigor of those classes, involvement inside and outside of school and test scores (ACT and SAT). The essay is used to see if the student is writing at a college level. We do look at class rank, your high school profile and where a student may fall among their peers,” Dorelien said. “We pride ourselves in accepting students we feel will thrive at Otterbein and become a great members of our community.”

Otterbein’s fall 2017 acceptance rate was 76 percent, according to US News.

“There are many factors that we look at when looking at college applications. Otterbein takes the holistic approach, meaning we are looking at each application and every student as a whole,” Dorelien said. “Race and ethnicity are not the first thing viewed on a student’s application, though it is noted.”

One way colleges encourage diversity outside of admissions is by offering scholarships to minorities based on characteristics such as gender, race and sexuality.

“We do offer an Ammons-Thomas Award, which can range from $1000-$5000,” Dorelien said. “It is offered to multicultural students who demonstrate strong scholarship and leadership.”

Otterbein also has an Urban District Initiative where the university works with Columbus City Schools, Southwestern City Schools, Westerville City Schools, Whitehall Yearling High School and Cristo Rey High School in making Otterbein affordable for all families that demonstrate financial need.

Other schools, such as Ohio Wesleyan, have such small numbers that they don’t have any admission quotas or policies related to affirmative action.

“Since our numbers are so small, we review every single application on an individual basis,” Director of Admissions Operations at Ohio Wesleyan Alisha Couch said. “We pride ourselves on the diversity of our class and welcome students from all over the world.”

The Ohio State University has a sector called the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which, according to their website, was founded in 1970, with a mission to help shape Ohio State into a world class model of inclusive academic excellence.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion offers scholarships, such as the Morrill Scholars Program, which rewards academically-talented students who champion diversity and inclusion, as well as participate in diversity-based service.

“My parents once said, ‘If you get the Morrill Scholarship, you're going to OSU.’ Financially speaking, OSU was the best choice. If I didn't get the scholarship, I would've gone to the University of South Florida,” 2014 graduate Vincent Sansait said. “The amount of diversity is huge at OSU, with all these different cultures and groups interacting and such. No doubt there's going to be misconceptions that people will make about other groups. You're not going to know everything at first, or you'll eventually assume wrong. That's where programs promoting diversity come in. These programs promote diversity through exposure, awareness and education and lessen the amount of prejudice, ignorance and discrimination seen on campus. I think they also promote curiosity to learn about other cultures and improve relationships between different groups.

The benefits of Affirmative Action extend beyond the boundaries of the college campus.

“In my opinion, everyone is able to benefit from Affirmative Action because not only are underrepresented groups given the chance to succeed, but they are also able to contribute new ideas to the greater group of people, which therefore benefits all of society,” senior Kara LaPaglia, who recently applied for college, said.

Contrarily, there are eight states that have altogether banned race-based Affirmative Action, according to The Century Foundation: California, Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona and Oklahoma. This makes up 29 percent of all college-attending students.

Despite this ban, colleges in those states make up for the lack of diversity by focusing primarily on socioeconomic factors and financial aid.

Even with the controversy surrounding Affirmative Action, supporters still feel it is a necessary part of the college admissions process in order to create a more diverse community.

“Affirmative Action is needed because equal opportunities are needed for all groups. America was built on the marginalization of one group over another, and we still see this present today,” Dorelien said. “As a Haitian American, first generation college student and American, I have seen this my entire life. My hope is to encourage all high school students to go to college and be educated.”


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