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Majority of Americans favor affirmative action in colleges as Supreme Court seems poised to end it, poll says

A new poll found that 63% of Americans don’t think the Supreme Court should ban affirmative action in college admissions.
Proponents of affirmative action in higher education rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 31, 2022.
Proponents of affirmative action in higher education rally in front of the Supreme Court in October.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Most Americans say the Supreme Court shouldn’t ban colleges and universities from considering applicants’ race in the admission process, according to a new poll released just weeks before the high court seems poised to do just that. 

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on the explicit consideration of race in college admissions, and the majority-conservative court has indicated it is likely to rule against the practice. But in a May poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Americans largely seem to favor affirmative action in college admissions.

Sixty-three percent of adults polled, across racial and political lines, said the Supreme Court shouldn’t block colleges from taking applicants’ race and ethnicity into account in the admission process. But many said that race should play a smaller role and that factors like high school grades and standardized test scores should weigh more. 

“On one hand, of course the Supreme Court should take into account this changing culture,” said Marie Bigham, the founder and executive director of Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace Today, a race-conscious admissions advocacy group. “On the other hand, I think of other cases that have landed before the court. We know what Brown v. Board of Education would have been decided if public opinion mattered.”

Bigham added that public opinion rarely has a big impact on policy decisions.

In the May poll, Democrats, nonwhite adults and those with college degrees were more likely than white adults, Republicans and those without college degrees to say race and ethnicity should be important. The results of the poll continue a nationwide shift over the last 10 years in favor of affirmative action. In 2013, just 45% of Americans polled were in favor of the practice, a historic low in the debate, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll

Affirmative action has been a consistent subject of debate as the Supreme Court has been weighing cases that challenge policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The group Students for Fair Admissions Inc., led by the conservative activist Ed Blum, accuses the universities of discriminating against Asian Americans and favoring Black and Latino students. Yet some Asian Americans have criticized the claims, saying Blum is simply using them in a thinly veiled attempt to upend affirmative action and sow racial discord. 

Since the University of Michigan and the University of California stopped affirmative action in admissions (in 2006 and 1996, respectively), admissions officers at both schools have said they’ve had a hard time building racially diverse student bodies, according to The New York Times. Costly outreach programs to enroll nonwhite students have fallen short, and the two schools admitted in a pair of amicus briefs to the Supreme Court that the practice of race-neutral admissions has failed, causing a drop in Black students’ admissions.

“I think this will continue to happen,” Bigham said, saying the universities complied when they were forced to ban affirmative action but still worked to build diverse campuses. “Are they happy with their results? No. Those universities still aren’t reflective of their communities. But I applaud my colleagues at those institutions for trying to find other ways. I see those states as bellwethers and cautionary tales all at once.” 

Organizations and institutions across the country are working to determine their places in a post-affirmative action America. Leaders at historically Black colleges and universities have said banning race-conscious admissions would create “racially isolated” colleges and universities, making HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions among the only institutions where Black and Latino students would feel supported and safe. 

Students for Fair Admissions has argued that, instead of considering race, schools should implement class-conscious admissions practices, according to Reuters. The group has said that approach would cultivate diverse student bodies. 

Richard Kahlenberg, an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions, shares that view. He said considering class and income in admissions would automatically benefit Black people. 

“I’ve long supported giving a break in admissions to economically disadvantaged students of all races, because then you’re not counting race as a major factor,” Kahlenberg said in an interview. “Yet economic status in America reflects a brutal history of racial discrimination and ongoing challenges. In particular, I think it’s very important to consider family wealth.”

Kahlenberg said that support for class-conscious admissions is a more palatable, less politically charged position and that it would be likely to get more public support than prioritizing race. He said that he’s confident that a shift toward class considerations would produce racially diverse student bodies and that if it didn’t, he would support race-conscious admissions. 

“I think Americans are looking for a middle ground,” he said. “To my mind, some of the most powerful cases for affirmative action involved working-class, low-income Black people who have overcome odds. A big advantage of the class approach is you’d be reaching working-class Black and Hispanic people.” 

However, a study in March from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that admissions practices that consider class but not race would still leave selective colleges without the representation of Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Pacific Islander students seen in U.S. high schools.

For such an approach to work without affirmative action, the study found, schools would have to overhaul their entire admissions processes, which would include eliminating consideration of students’ athletic talent and legacy admissions. In addition, schools without hefty scholarship endowments would be limited in their ability to select applicants who can’t pay full tuition. 

Now, as the nation waits for the Supreme Court decision, Bigham said those in favor of affirmative action should pressure higher education institutions to prioritize diversity in any way they can. 

“One thing we can do is hold our institutions accountable,” Bigham said. “Make sure that we’re demanding our institutions are still mission-driven. Make sure they’re holding up their end.”