Affirmative Action Statistics in College Admissions

While students favor diversity on college campuses, nearly 75% of Americans oppose using race as a factor in college admissions. Learn about affirmative action statistics and Supreme Court cases in our report.
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Data Summary

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    Colleges and universities began to consider race as a factor in admissions in the late 1960s to diversify student bodies.[1]
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    As of 2022, nine states have banned affirmative action, with other states reversing (Texas) or failing to pass (Colorado) the measures.[2], [3]
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    In 2022, nearly 3 in 4 (74%) people in the U.S. said that race or ethnicity should not be considered in college admissions.[4]
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    In a recent Pew Research Center survey, more Black respondents supported affirmative action than white survey respondents. Even so, the majority of Black respondents did not support affirmative action.Note Reference [4]
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    In 2020, the average Black-to-white student graduation rate gap at the top dozen public universities without affirmative action was 10.1%. The average gap at the top dozen public universities with affirmative action was 6%.[5]

At the end of October, anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions made its case against Harvard and the University of North Carolina to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of race-based college admissions, also known as affirmative action.

BestColleges survey data indicates that most students believe racial and ethnic diversity improves the learning environment (59%) and social experience (62%) for students. Yet, just 37% of students support using race and ethnicity in college admissions.

This report explores the history of affirmative action, the Harvard affirmative action Supreme Court case, and the effects of affirmative action bans on the University of California (UC) schools, which were the first to eliminate the practice.

When Did Affirmative Action Start?

Affirmative action in higher education was originally put in place during the civil rights movement to diversify student bodies that were almost exclusively white. In the late 1960s, colleges and universities began to consider race as a factor in admissions, giving extra consideration to underrepresented groups.

Since its inception, affirmative action has been controversial, with different sides arguing over its efficacy, fairness, and legality.

As of 2022, nine states have successfully banned affirmative action, with other states reversing (Texas in 2003) or failing to pass (Colorado in 2008) the measures.[6], [7]

States That Have Already Banned Affirmative Action
State Year Banned
California 1996
Texas 1996 (Reversed in 2003)
Washington 1998
Florida 1999
Michigan 2006
Nebraska 2008
Arizona 2010
New Hampshire 2011
Oklahoma 2012
Idaho 2020

Sources: AP NewsNote Reference [3] and Pew Research CenterNote Reference [4]

The UC schools were the first to ban race-conscious methods from college admissions after a Supreme Court ruling in 1996. The most recent state was Idaho,Note Reference [3] which banned affirmative action in areas of public employment and education.

Did You Know…

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action is a set of procedures designed to eliminate and remedy unlawful discrimination.[8] In the context of school admissions, it means considering a candidate's race or ethnicity, especially when that person is from an underrepresented group. Historically, it has also meant considering students' gender during a time when women were underrepresented in certain fields or institutions.

Affirmative Action in College Admissions

According to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. public continues to view high school grades and standardized test scores as the most important considerations in college admissions.Note Reference [4]

  • 93% of respondents to the Pew survey said that grades should be a factor, with the majority (61%) answering that they should be a major factor.
  • 85% said test scores, such as results from the SATs and ACTs, should be a factor.
  • Less than half responded that being the first in a family to go to college (46%), athletic ability (45%), race/ethnicity (26%), legacy (i.e., whether a relative attended the school, 26%), or gender (18%) should be factors in college admissions.
  • Nearly 3 in 4 respondents (74%) said that race or ethnicity should not be a consideration, a figure that has remained constant since 1978.
  • Roughly one in five (19%) answered that race or ethnicity should play a minor role, and only 7% responded that they should be major considerations.

Source: Pew Research CenterNote Reference [4]

Opinions on Affirmative Action by Race

  • In a 2022 Pew Research poll, 74% of people responded that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in admissions.Note Reference [4]
  • Black and Hispanic or Latino/a survey respondents were more likely than white respondents to say that race or ethnicity should be considered as factors.

Pew Research CenterNote Reference [4]

Harvard Affirmative Action Case

The conservative nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions originally filed two lawsuits related to affirmative action in 2014. One accused Harvard College (the undergraduate institute of Harvard University) of being discriminatory towards Asian American applicants. The second claimed the University of North Carolina rejected race-neutral alternatives without proper justification.

The most recent Supreme Court ruling regarding affirmative action from 2013 (Fisher v. University of Texas) stated that universities could factor in race in admissions when race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.[9]

Source: Harvard Law School Scholarly Articles[10]

In fall 2021, Black and African American students made up 9.37% of the Harvard undergraduate class.[11] In fall 2022, African American students made up a record-breaking 15.2% of admitted undergraduates.[12]

Since President Johnson mandated affirmative action in 1965, the number of Black student enrollees has drastically increased. But, the question of whether these figures were only possible through race-conscious methods is a point of debate.

Effects of Affirmative Action Ban on University of California Schools

In 1996, California became the first state to outlaw affirmative action at public universities. Harvard's Black student population (9.37%) is more than double UC Berkeley's (3.8%) and UCLA's (6%).

Here's the demographic breakdown of California's most selective public colleges:

University of California, Berkeley[13]

  • Asian: 40%
  • White: 21%
  • Hispanic/Latino/a: 20%
  • Black: 4%
  • Native American/Alaska Native: <1%

University of California, Los AngelesNote Reference [13]

  • Asian: 34%
  • White: 26%
  • Hispanic/Latino/a: 20%
  • Black: 6%
  • Native American: 1%

Starting on January 1, 1997, public universities in California were banned from considering race in college admissions.

In 1995, 20% of students enrolling at UC schools were from underrepresented groups (URGs). But this number decreased after California banned affirmative action. It didn't fully recover until 2006.[14]

  • The percent of URG enrollees dipped to a record low of 15% two years after the ban and remained relatively low until about 2006 when numbers began to go back up.
  • From 1989-2016, the percent of URG students in California's public high schools nearly doubled, from 29.6% to 59%.
  • Meanwhile, the percentage of California URG high school graduates who enrolled at UC schools also increased, but at a slower rate.
  • While nearly 75% of students at UC schools are in-state learners, enrollment does not reflect the student demographics of the state.

Source: California Department of Education Public School DataNote Reference [14]

Are There Alternatives to Affirmative Action and Do They Work?

The UC school system currently has a merit-based policy. As of fall 2022, California guarantees admission to at least one UC school to all in-state high school graduates in the top 9% of their class.[15]

California originally unveiled its Master Plan in 1960 which guaranteed admission to the UC schools for the top 12.5% of California high school graduates and admission to the state schools for those graduating in the top third.[16]

While the UC system initially experienced a dip in URG enrollment after the affirmative action ban, numbers have risen significantly in recent years. There is still a considerable gap, however, between the state's high school URG graduates (59% in 2016) and URG enrollees at UC schools (37%).Note Reference [16]

The University of Texas currently honors a top 6% plan, originally the Top 10% Law from 1997, guaranteeing admission to Texas high school graduates who graduate at the top of their class.[17]

Texas has implemented a mixed approach, factoring in a student's socioeconomic background (i.e., school neighborhood, parents' education history, and income level) and high school performance.

Source: The Century Foundation[18]

  • In 1996, the Black population of Texas represented 11.7% of the total population, and in 2004, it represented 11.3%.[19]
  • In 1996, the Latino/a population represented 29.4% of the total population of the state, and in 2004, it represented 34.6%. In other words, it increased 5.2 percentage points or roughly 18%.Note Reference [19]
  • The population of Latino/a students at UT Austin increased 2.4 percentage points, or 17% in the same time period.Note Reference [18]

While admissions rates are one way to measure a policy's effectiveness, graduation rates are also telling of URG students' experiences in higher education.

  • The Black-to-white student graduation rate gaps at some of the top public universities without affirmative action are roughly double those of schools with affirmative action in some cases.Note Reference [5]
  • The average Black-to-white student graduation rate gap at the top dozen public universities without affirmative action is 10.1%, while the average gap at the top dozen public universities with affirmative action is 6%.Note Reference [5]
Average Black Student Graduation Rates in the Country's Most-Selective Public Universities (2020)
School Type Average African American/Black Student Graduation Rate Average Black-to-White Student Graduation Gap
Top 12 Public Universities With Affirmative Action 87.3% 6%
Top 12 Public Universities Without Affirmative Action 78% 10.1%

Source: Civil Rights ProjectNote Reference [5]