The Legacy and Opportunity of Affirmative Action
affirmative action, race-neutral alternatives
In higher education, affirmative action takes on the form of race-conscious admissions policies that allow colleges and universities to take account of an applicant’s race as one of many factors in their evaluation, ultimately allowing them to look beyond the confines of applicants’ past educational opportunities to get a sense of their true potential. Decades of restrictions on the scope of affirmative action and its legal underpinnings have limited its impact. At its best, though, affirmative action plays an important role in redressing centuries of educational inequality, and it benefits both present and future generations. Courts, admissions offices, and policymakers across the country should recognize affirmative action’s potential to redress the disadvantages faced by students of color in a persistently unequal education landscape.
Affirmative action facilitates the matriculation of talented, underrepresented students of color at quality educational institutions, particularly highly selective universities with competitive admissions. This immediately benefits both direct beneficiaries of affirmative action – who reap the rewards of a college education, their peers – who access the resultant educational benefits of diverse learning environments, and society at large – which benefits socially and economically from maximizing America’s pool of talented graduates and reinforcing our multiracial democracy. It also has intergenerational benefits, as having a college-educated parent is itself an advantage. By promoting degree attainment among Black students who may be or become parents, affirmative action can be a useful tool in redressing historical intergenerational disadvantage and unlocking opportunities that reflect and reward Black students’ talent and hard work.