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Protest at Supreme Court in favor of affirmative action

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When the U.S. Supreme Court last month affirmed the right of colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions, college leaders rushed to praise the decision and expressed confidence in the future of affirmative action.

But a poll of the public by Gallup, with questions drafted with Inside Higher Ed, finds that the general public disagrees with the Supreme Court and college leaders. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those surveyed by Gallup between June 29 and July 2, 2016, said they disagreed with the decision. The ruling was backed by 31 percent, and 4 percent had no opinion.

Support for the decision varied by several demographic factors. For example, by educational status, people with some postgraduate education were the most likely to support the decision (46 percent), followed by those with a college degree (35 percent). Only 27 percent of those with a high school diploma or a lower level of education attainment supported the decision.

Webinar and Conference

  • Inside Higher Ed is holding a free webinar to discuss these poll results and related issues on the Supreme Court's decision on Thursday, Aug. 4, at 2 p.m. Eastern. Sign up here.
  • Inside Higher Ed and Gallup are co-sponsoring a conference in Washington on September 15, "Protests, Court Battles and the Impact on Campus Diversity," on both the Supreme Court decision and a year of students protests. More information and registration may be found here.

Gallup states that it has 95 percent confidence that the results are accurate within three percentage points. Gallup's take on the data may be found here.

A nationally representative sample of the public was also asked which factors should be considered in college admissions decisions. The results show the strongest support for consideration of high school grades and for standardized tests (with the latter far behind the former).

While there was some support for consideration of economic status or whether applicants are the first generation in their family to go to college, support for considering race was low -- behind considering athletic ability or alumni child status. The table below shows the percentage of those polled who said various characteristics should be considered a major factor, a minor factor or not at all in admissions decisions.

The Public on What Should Be Considered in Admissions

  Major Factor Minor Factor Not at All No Opinion
High school grades 73% 20% 6% 1%
Standardized test scores 55% 33% 10% 2%
Types of courses students took in high school 50% 31% 19% 1%
Family's economic circumstances 31% 30% 39% 1%
First-generation status 31% 27% 41% 1%
Athletic ability 15% 40% 44% 1%
Parent is a graduate 11% 35% 52% 2%
Race or ethnicity 9% 27% 63% 1%
Gender 8% 25% 66% 2%

Many of those who oppose the consideration of race and ethnicity argue for what they describe as pure academic standards focused on grades and test scores. But the results here are striking in the higher support for nonacademic criteria that are not race or ethnicity. Preferences for alumni children, for example, have been criticized as favoring applicants who are likely to be white and wealthier than average.

The Gallup results featured breakouts for black and Latino participants (but not other racial/ethnic groups) in the poll. While they were more likely than white participants to back a consideration of race or ethnicity, a majority of them did not back such consideration. (Those who did not answer or said they did not know are left out of the table below.)

Should Race/Ethnicity Be Considered, by Race

  Major Factor Minor Factor Not at All
White 3.9% 28.8% 66.6%
Black 16.7% 26.2% 57.1%
Latino 25.8% 19.8% 47.3%

What the Results Mean

Michele S. Moses, associate dean for graduate studies and professor of education philosophy and policy at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, and author of the new book Living With Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Controversy About Affirmative Action (University of Chicago Press), said the results raised concerns for her, as someone who believes that considering race in admissions is appropriate in some circumstances, and also a misunderstood practice.

"I think there are a lot of misperceptions about how widely it is used," she said, noting that most nonelite colleges don't have admissions systems that are so competitive that race and ethnicity are factors. Likewise, she said, many members of the public don't realize the advantages of wealth in the admissions process, advantages that are largely enjoyed by white students.

She noted that those who attend high schools that serve wealthier students have far more educational opportunities and, on average, receive higher scores on standardized tests than do other students. Even in athletics, she noted that some sports that earn students college admissions are offered only at wealthier high schools, and that only some parents can afford the kind of coaching and programs that get their children recruited by college coaches.

In this environment, she said, college leaders who want to defend their right to consider race in admissions need to do more than just comply with the Supreme Court's rulings on the limits on their policies.

"I think higher education has a role in educating the public about these issues," Moses said. "Part of the mission of institutions of higher education is broader than just educating and giving degrees to students. There is a larger social purpose and social function" and the consideration of racial and socioeconomic diversity is important. "Institutions have an obligation to educate a diverse group to be a nation's professionals and office holders and leaders. That makes a big difference to our society."

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes the consideration of race in admissions, said he was not surprised or alarmed by the poll results. "Americans have been brought up to believe that it's a bad thing to treat people differently because of their skin color or where their ancestors came from," he said. "None of this is surprising."

Clegg said that public colleges and universities that feel secure in considering race in admissions should also remember that voters or legislators can pass laws that bar them from doing so. And in fact, that has happened. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right (in some circumstances) of the University of Michigan to consider race in admissions. In 2006, the state's voters barred public universities in the state from considering race in admissions -- and that ban stands.

Asked about greater public support for considering athletic ability or alumni status than race in admissions decisions, Clegg acknowledged that the motivations of colleges for wanting to favor athletes or alumni children were not "the noblest" of all college motivations.

But he said that he agreed with the public that it's better to consider those factors than race. "Discriminating against people on the basis of skin color is uniquely ugly, and I am not surprised and not bothered by the fact that more Americans should be offended by that than because applicants can throw a football well."

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