Poll Finds the Public Doesn’t Favor Affirmative Action

Pew poll of American adults finds 74 percent think race and ethnicity should not be considered in admissions decisions. For gender, 82 percent think it shouldn’t be considered.

May 2, 2022
Arms of various skin colors holding up different-colored question marks.
(Getty Images)

Americans do not favor the consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in college admissions decisions.

A new Pew Research Center report found that 74 percent think race and ethnicity should not be considered in admissions decisions. For gender, 82 percent think it shouldn’t be considered.

The results extend to every racial group and to Democrats as well as Republicans.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear two cases, probably in October, on the future of affirmative action in admissions. The deadline for Students for Fair Admissions, the group challenging the affirmative action policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to file its brief in the cases is today.

The Supreme Court doesn’t consider the public’s opinion on issues (at least not officially). But the data point to a major problem for colleges and universities, given that most colleges have backed the positions of Harvard and UNC.

Some may wonder how the questions were phrased, as there is some history of groups that oppose (or favor) affirmative action using language to get those participating in polls to respond accordingly.

Pew asked, “Here are some factors colleges and universities may consider when making decisions about student admissions. Do you think each of the following should be a major factor, minor factor, or not a factor in college admissions?”

Respondents most supported the use of high school grades, with 61 percent saying they should be a major factor and 32 percent a minor factor. (When Pew last did this survey three years ago, the results were similar, except that 67 percent said grades should be a major factor and 26 percent said they should be a minor factor.)

Scores on standardized tests were second. Thirty-nine percent said they should be a major factor, down from 47 percent three years ago. Of course, during those three years, a majority of colleges went test optional in admissions.

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The most striking answers to many came on the elements besides grades and test scores.

Americans Evaluate What Colleges Should Consider

Factor % Who Believe It Should Be a Major Factor A Minor Factor Shouldn’t Be Considered
Community service 19% 48% 33%
First in family to go to college 18% 28% 54%
Athletic ability 9% 36% 55%
Race or ethnicity 7% 19% 74%
Whether a relative attended the college 5% 20% 75%
Gender 4% 14%

82%

Notably:

  • The percentage in favor of legacy admissions (favoring the admission of the relatives of alumni) dropped the most in the three years since the last survey. Three years ago, 8 percent thought it should be a major factor and 24 percent a minor factor. The percentage who believe it should not be a factor grew from 68 to 75 percent.
  • Views on affirmative action and gender changed very much in the three years between surveys, years in which the issue has captured considerable attention.
  • Considering athletic ability in admissions remains more popular than considering either race or gender.

Pew broke down the responses on race and ethnicity in admissions by race and by political identity. The proportions who believe that race and ethnicity shouldn’t be considered were: 79 percent for white people, 59 percent for Black people, 68 percent for Hispanics and 63 percent for Asians.

In terms of politics, while 87 percent of Republicans said race and ethnicity should not be considered in admissions decisions, 62 percent of Democrats agreed.

The survey was of 10,441 American adults.

Reactions to the Poll

Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he was not surprised by the findings on affirmative action, “but I am in disagreement.”

He said colleges need to do a better job of explaining how they use affirmative action. For example, he said that many people responding probably think that considering race or ethnicity means not considering academics. What people don’t understand is that colleges use affirmative action to admit students who can succeed.

“We need better storytelling, more contextualization,” he said.

Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, said the results show a simple truth: “Americans of all races and political leanings overwhelmingly do not believe race should be a factor in college admissions.”

Richard Anthony Baker, president of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, and executive director for institutional equity at Rice University, said via email, “Oftentimes, when a system works for you, you support it because with many systems, your effort, a factor wholly within your control, is usually rewarded. But for opportunity systems such as education, factors that are completely outside of your control, such as where you live, your parent’s educational attainment, economic status and your race, can be elements that shut you out of the opportunity. While racial fairness may be waning in popularity in America, I would hope that fostering fairness for the greater good of all will always be a factor in judging critical opportunity systems as important as education no matter how unpopular the exercise may be.”

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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