How Affirmative Action Shapes the College Application Process


Race has been a divisive issue in this nation since its founding. From slavery to Jim Crow laws to quotas on immigration, minorities, especially Black Americans, have faced systematic oppression and serious obstacles to their economic success. How should this be remedied? One belief is that affirmative action programs that aid these historically underrepresented groups is a morally right way to make amends for the nations’ past mistakes. 

Affirmative action has been around for decades, but the way it has been used by universities has changed over the years. Before 1978, affirmative action was used in a quota system, with certain amounts of spots in many colleges being reserved for minorities to promote the diversity of their campuses. This all changed after the Supreme Court decision of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Bakke, a white man, argued that he deserved a spot in the medical school of UC Davis because he had better grades than certain minorities who got in through the quota system, and the Court agreed with Bakke. The Court ruled that universities using race in a quota system is unconstitutional, but this was not the end of affirmative action. The Court specified in their ruling that race could still be used as a factor in the holistic review of an applicant in order to promote diversity. There are, however, still opponents of affirmative action because they believe it may be racist or detrimental.

Over the past few years Harvard University has been the focus of an affirmative action-related controversy. The Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) has taken Harvard to federal court for what they believe to be unconstitutional use of affirmative action. AACE alleged that Harvard has a quota system in place to restrict the numbers of Asian American students admitted in the university, and that on subjected factors, such as personality, Asian Americans were unfairly rated lower by admissions officers. However, on October 1st, 2019, the federal court ruled that they saw “no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian Americans.” This case highlights the fallibility of affirmative action. While it works for many minorities, for others it is believed to hurt, and this is where the College Board comes in.

Last year, the College Board, the “nonprofit” organization in charge of the SAT and APs, chose to tackle the problem of affirmative action and incorporate it into the SAT. The College Board did so through their idea of an “adversity score,” ranking students who took an SAT by factors like socioeconomic status and whether they would be the first in their family to go to college. The purpose of the index was to put students’ SAT scores in the context of their socioeconomic resources, since preparing for the SAT is often expensive and exclusive. While some viewed this development as positive because it is not based solely on race, many argued that the College Board ranking students with an adversity score that was hidden to those being ranked is still not just. Met with backlash from both supporters and opponents of affirmative action, the College Board pivoted their “adversity score” into a program called “Landscape,” which aims to be more transparent in how they use student information to communicate with universities.  

The college admission process is messy. We rely on education to give us a better future, but we are not all on a level playing field. Some students can afford expensive tutors. Others have better access to college due to legacy status. Parents of students can even donate large sums of money to give their children better chances of being admitted to their top school. While some may see this as an issue of the poor versus the wealthy, it is important to consider our national history. Minorities, women, and other groups of historically underrepresented people were not allowed in many universities until a handful of decades ago, so legacy admission for many is not possible. Wealth among the traditionally wealthy grows exponentially, while people whose ancestors were not wealthy are still affected by their past. Poverty knows no race, but some races know poverty far too well. Until we, as a nation, can overcome the disparities caused by our past, affirmative action will be important to ensure equality and diversity in the college application process. Affirmative action is not a system intended to oppress; it is intended to give a chance to people who deserve a shot.