A year after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision regarding affirmative action in admissions decisions at the University of Michigan, many are wondering whether things have actually improved or regressed. On 23 June 2003, in Gratz v. Bollinger, the court struck down the undergraduate school's point-based admissions policy, but in Grutter v. Bollinger it upheld the law school's policy. The take-home message was that race could be a determinant, but it could not be the predominant factor, in a school's admissions procedure.

Does affirmative action really work? Has the situation for minority students changed since then? This article will briefly address the situation and the future of affirmative action.

Background on Affirmative Action

If you'd like more information about what's taken place in the past regarding affirmative action, please read "Bakke and Beyond: A History and Timeline of Affirmative Action" published on Infoplease.com by Borgna Brunner, or "Affirmative Action Works" published on In Motion Magazine by Paul Kivel. To read the stance of the American Association for Affirmative Action prior to the June 2003 decision, see "AAAA Statement on the U of M Cases: Is Race the Focus?" published on the AAAA Web site by Robert W. Etheridge, Ph.D., president of AAAA. Also, don't forget to read MiSciNet's related articles shown at the bottom of the page.

Who Benefits From Affirmative Action?

The answer to this question is easy: We all do. The umbrella term "affirmative action" doesn't apply only to minority students seeking a college education; it applies to everyone who has been denied access to educational opportunities or jobs in the past. This includes Caucasian women as well as people of color. Society as a whole gains when everyone is given a chance to prove their worth. An environment that is composed of people with varying backgrounds provides many ideas and ways of doing things that lead to better productivity. As a matter of fact, according to a recent study, this rich environment may help us learn better.

In an article to be published in the August edition of Psychological Science , a journal of the American Psychological Society, researchers at the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research found that racial diversity promoted complex thought. The authors of the study, Anthony L. Antonio, Mitchell J. Chang, Kenji Hakuta, David A. Kenny, Shana Levin, and Jeffrey F. Milem, used groups of three Caucasian students with similar views (on child labor or capital punishment) and matched them with either a Caucasian or African-American collaborator. The collaborator then used specific guidelines given by the researchers for agreement or opposition to the group.

The study concluded that Caucasian students whose social group contained other ethnicities exhibited more complex reasoning skills, which suggests that repeated exposure to racial diversity boosted brain power.

Watch Your Step

Although the courts said race could be used as a factor in college admissions, many schools are hesitant to employ assertive affirmative action policies. According to a recent article published on CNN.com, "Schools Struggle with Affirmative Action," some experts believe there are three reasons why many colleges and universities are reluctant:

  • Legal issues

  • Financial expense

  • Belief that affirmative action will be eradicated in the future

  • Opponents of affirmative action are requesting admissions data from institutions of higher learning to make sure the schools are adhering to the policy of using race as one of many factors rather than having it be the determining factor. These watch-dog groups threaten to sue if the school "gives credit or points" to applicants based on race. State law in California has gone a step further and prohibits schools from even including race as a factor in admissions.

    Cost is another key issue. To comply with the law, applications must be longer, and institutions must have a larger staff to read and process them. This is time-consuming and expensive; however, the University of Massachusetts has found a solution to the problem. They've hired retired faculty and recent graduates to read these longer applications (see "UMass Makes Diversity Investment" published on CNN.com).

    Many believe it is just a matter of time before affirmative action is abolished altogether, so some schools don't feel the need to waste a lot of time, money, and energy on something that won't exist in 5 to 10 years. Others expect affirmative action to survive, but only by morphing into a different creature.

    What the Future Holds

    According to a March 2004 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Richard Kahlenberg ( "Toward Affirmative Action for Economic Diversity," subscription required), diversity should be defined more broadly to include the economically disadvantaged. Data from the top 146 U.S. colleges (10% of all 4-year colleges) demonstrate that students from the highest economic bracket take up 74% of available slots while students from the lowest economic bracket only fill 3%. In addition, poor students are 25 times less likely to attend a highly prestigious college than students from rich families.

    Some minority groups worry that changing our thinking will damage affirmative action, but including economics in the debate would still keep the focus on minorities, according to Kahlenberg. He writes, "In the University of Michigan undergraduate case, Gratz v. Bollinger, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices David H. Souter and Stephen Breyer, supported affirmative action with data finding that African-American and Hispanic students have higher poverty rates than white students (22.1 percent and 21.2 percent compared with 7.5 percent), and that black and Latino students 'are all too often educated in poverty-stricken and underperforming institutions.' "

    Will affirmative action be around for the next generation or will we as a nation mature enough for it to be discarded? As an idealist, I'd like to see our country take major steps to ensure that all members of our society have equal access to opportunities, but are we really ready to do what needs to be done? I guess only time will tell.

    Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at rarnette@aaas.org.

    Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at rarnette@aaas.org