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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Jane Nam is a staff writer for BestColleges' Data Center. Before her work on higher education data trends, Jane was a news writer and the managing editor for an academic journal. She has graduate degrees in social and political philosophy and women's...
Updated on July 3, 2023
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and data writer for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evaluati...
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Data Summary

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    In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious college admissions.[1]
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    Colleges and universities began to consider race as a factor in admissions in the late 1960s to diversify student bodies.[2]
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    As of 2023, eight states have banned affirmative action, with other states reversing (Texas and Washington) or failing to pass (Colorado) the measures.[3], [4], [5]
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    In a recent Pew Research Center survey, half of U.S. adults disapproved of selective colleges considering race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, while just one-third of U.S. adults (33%) approved.[6]
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    In the same survey, almost half of Black Americans (47%) said that they approved of affirmative action in selective college admissions compared to 29% of white people.[7]
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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%.[8]

At the end of October 2022, 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.

In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in a vote of 6-3, no longer allowing schools to consider race in college admissions.

Previous BestColleges survey data indicated that most students believe racial and ethnic diversity improves the learning environment (59%) and social experience (62%) for students. Just 37% of students, however, 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.

Prior to the June 2023 ruling, eight states had already successfully banned affirmative action, with other states reversing (Texas in 2003, Washington in 2022) or failing to pass (Colorado in 2008) the measures.[9], [10]

States That Had Already Banned Affirmative Action
State Year Banned
California 1996
Texas 1996 (Reversed in 2003)
Washington 1998 (Reversed in 2022)
Florida 1999
Michigan 2006
Nebraska 2008
Arizona 2010
New Hampshire 2011
Oklahoma 2012
Idaho 2020
Sources: Pew Research CenterNote Reference [11], AP NewsNote Reference [4], and The Seattle TimesNote Reference [5]

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, which banned affirmative action in areas of public employment and education.Note Reference [3]

Did You Know…

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action is a set of procedures designed to eliminate and remedy unlawful discrimination.[12] 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 a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, half of U.S. adults (50%) disapproved of selective colleges considering race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, while just one-third of U.S. adults (33%) approved.Note Reference [6]

In the same survey, nearly half of Americans (49%) said that considering race and ethnicity makes college admissions less fair.Note Reference [6] In contrast, 20% said that it makes the process more fair, and 30% said it does not affect the fairness of the admissions process or they are not sure.

Public Views Grades and Test Scores As Top Factors in College Admissions

Based on 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 [11]

Opinions on Affirmative Action by Race

According to the 2023 Pew Research Center survey, race appeared to strongly affect U.S. adults' attitudes on affirmative action.

  • Almost half of Black Americans (47%) said they approve of affirmative action in selective college admissions.Note Reference [7]
  • About one-quarter of Black Americans (24%) said they are not sure, and 29% disapprove.Note Reference [7]
  • In contrast, 37% of Asian Americans approved of affirmative action in selective college admissions.Note Reference [7]
  • In another Pew poll, only 1 in 5 Asian adults (20%) said race/ethnicity should be considered in selective college admissions decisions.[13]
  • A slight majority of Asian adults (52%) said that they disapprove.Note Reference [7]
  • A greater majority of white Americans said that they disapprove at 57%.Note Reference [7]
  • Among Hispanic Americans, there was an even number who disapproved and approved.Note Reference [7]

While a higher overall percentage of U.S. adults continue to disapprove of affirmative action in college admissions than approve, support for affirmative action in college admissions appears to have increased significantly from prior polls.

  • According to the 2022 Pew Research poll, 74% of people had responded that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in admissions — a figure that had remained relatively constant since 1978.Note Reference [11]
  • Roughly 1 in 5 (19%) had answered that race or ethnicity should play a minor role, and only 7% responded that they should be major considerations.

Opinions on Affirmative Action by Political Party

Political affiliation was also a strong indicator of people's opinions on affirmative action.

  • Roughly three-quarters of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (74%) say that they disapprove of affirmative actions, with 48% strongly disapproving of the practice.Note Reference [6]
  • In contrast, 29% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents disapprove of the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions.Note Reference [6]
  • A slight majority of Democrats (54%) approve.Note Reference [6]

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.

Prior to the June 2023 ruling, the most recent Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action was from 2013 (Fisher v. University of Texas), which stated that universities could factor in race in admissions when race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.[14]

In fall 2021, Black and African American students made up 9.37% of the Harvard undergraduate class.[16] In fall 2022, African American students made up a record-breaking 15.2% of admitted undergraduates.[17]

Since President Johnson mandated affirmative action, 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[18]

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

University of California, Los AngelesNote Reference [18]

  • 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.[19]

  • 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.

Racial Gaps in Other States Between High Schools and State Flagship Universities

The June 2023 Supreme Court ruling banning the use of race-conscious methods in college admissions may widen existing racial gaps for Black and Hispanic and Latino/a students attending their state's flagship universities.

A Hechinger Report from 2023 identified where some of those gaps already exist.[20]

  • 8 of the 10 flagships with the biggest gaps for Black students do not factor race into their admissions processes.
  • In 2021, 48% of Mississippi's high school graduates were Black, but only 8% of first-year students at Ole Miss, the state's flagship university, were Black.
  • The gap between Georgia's Black high school graduates and those who go on to the University of Georgia has widened by 31 percentage points, with just 2% of incoming first-year students being Black men in 2021.

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.[21]

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.[22]

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 [22]

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.[23]

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.

  • In 1996, the Black population of Texas represented 11.7% of the total population, and in 2004, it represented 11.3%.[25]
  • 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 [25]
  • The population of Latino/a students at UT Austin increased 2.4 percentage points, or 17% in the same time period.Note Reference [24]

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 [8]