Over 6 in 10 Americans favor leaving race out of college admissions, Post-Schar School poll finds

But an equally strong majority backs programs to boost racial and ethnic diversity among students.

Students protest in support of the use of race in school admissions outside the Supreme Court during a hearing on Oct. 15, 2013. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Students protest in support of the use of race in school admissions outside the Supreme Court during a hearing on Oct. 15, 2013. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

More than 6 in 10 Americans support a ban on the consideration of race in college admissions, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll, but an equally robust majority endorses programs to boost racial diversity on campuses.

The findings illuminate the turbulent crosscurrents of public opinion on affirmative action as the Supreme Court revisits the fraught subject barely six years after it upheld the limited use of race in admissions at the University of Texas. On Oct. 31, the justices will hear arguments in cases challenging race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

If the court’s conservative majority reverses decades of precedent and prohibits the consideration of race and ethnicity, the Post-Schar School poll conducted this month finds 63 percent of adults would support the change. At the same time, 64 percent say programs designed to increase racial diversity of students are a good thing. Support for boosting diversity is high across racial and ethnic groups, while Black Americans are less supportive of banning race as a factor in admissions than people of other backgrounds.

Americans appear torn over policies meant to remedy historical inequities in educational opportunity and uphold the principle that students learn a great deal through encounters with classmates who don’t look like them.

As Supreme Court test looms, UNC defends use of race in admissions

“It is important to have a race-neutral approach to getting into college,” said Gwen Meeks, 50, a nurse from Garden City, Mo., who is White. “Nobody’s ever helped by giving people something they haven’t earned through their own hard work.” But Meeks said she values racial diversity and worries White people too often are given privilege. She wants college opportunities open to all. “I do want every kid, no matter where they grow up, or what the color of their skin is, I want them to have the ability to get into college if they put the work in.”

Justin Gest, an associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said the poll’s results suggest the public craves a middle path. “So the message to universities seems to be: Cultivate and champion diversity without discriminating by race and ethnicity,” Gest said.

How to do that poses a dilemma. Recruit more from low-income neighborhoods? Provide more financial aid? Target high schools statewide or nationwide? End special admissions treatment for athletes or children of donors and alumni? Some prominent universities say there is no “race-neutral” workaround to achieve their diversity goals.

Detailed crosstabs of poll results

For much of higher education, the issue is moot. Nine states, including California, Florida and Michigan, prohibit consideration of race in public university admissions. Many prominent public universities in other states ignore race. What’s more, a huge number of schools nationwide accept most or nearly all applicants. But the stunningly low admission rates for the Ivy League and other prestigious schools make the questions of who gets in and who doesn’t — and, especially, whether the process is fair and legal — a topic of outsize cultural and political importance.

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In two lawsuits before the high court, a group called Students for Fair Admissions alleges that Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill practice unlawful discrimination, putting too much weight on race, to the benefit of Black and Latino applicants and the detriment of those who are Asian American or White. The universities deny the charge, and lower courts ruled in their favor.

How one man brought affirmative action to the Supreme Court. Again and again.

The Post-Schar School poll explored perceptions of fairness and unfairness among various groups in the chase for admission to selective schools.

There is wide agreement that the system is stacked — in favor of the rich. Sixty percent say applicants from high-income families have an unfair advantage in getting into a good college, and 62 percent said those from low-income families have an unfair disadvantage.

On race, there are also divisions. More than 6 in 10 say White and Asian applicants have a fair chance in an admissions competition, but fewer than half say the same for Black and Latino applicants. Roughly 4 in 10 also say those who are Black and Latino face unfair disadvantages. That’s more than twice the share who say Asian applicants are unfairly hindered.

More than a quarter of Americans overall say White applicants have an unfair advantage, while about 1 in 10 say those who are White are unfairly disadvantaged.

The poll finds African Americans more evenly split than other groups on whether they would support a ban on consideration of race in admissions, with 47 percent in support and 53 percent opposed.

“Colleges are there to educate all, and they need to be looking at their populations to make sure that a broader swath of society has an opportunity for a good education,” said Calvin Emanuel, 51, a business executive in Naperville, Ill., who is Black and has a doctorate in chemistry. “They should be allowed to consider race as a factor.”

Politically, Emanuel described himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal and said he has voted for politicians from both major parties. The poll finds Republicans significantly more likely than Democrats to support a ban on race-conscious admissions. Emanuel said much is at stake for groups of people long deprived of social and economic opportunities.

“I do see education as a route that can help people find ways to grow generational wealth for themselves and for their families,” he said.

A 60 percent majority of Latinos say they would support a ban. “You shouldn’t ask a race question,” said Lisa Oliva, 58, of New York, a Cuban American mother of seven. “If they’ve got the grades, it doesn’t matter if they’re purple.”

For decades, the Supreme Court has splintered over the role of race in admissions. A landmark 1978 case, California v. Bakke, drew six different opinions from the nine justices. The controlling opinion, by Justice Lewis Powell, set out the compromise that endures today: universities may consider race as a factor in admissions, but cannot enforce racial quotas or set-asides. Unlike other justices who said race-conscious policies were a way to redress discrimination, Powell said building a diverse student body was the kind of compelling government interest that allowed the limited use of racial sorting.

“The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples,” he wrote.

Since then, the court several times has narrowly upheld the use of race in college admissions while forbidding it elsewhere. Most recently, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who had never before supported affirmative action, wrote a surprising 2016 decision in favor of the race-conscious process at the University of Texas.

For colleges and universities that take race into account, it is typically described as one of many factors in a “holistic” review that includes grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and other information about an applicant’s background.

The challenges to Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill were brought by the same coalition that challenged UT’s policy. But if the argument remains essentially the same — that the Constitution and federal law prohibit racial sorting — the court has changed. Kennedy has retired. President Donald Trump filled that vacancy and two others with justices who strengthened the conservative bloc that dissented in the UT decision.

As the court has returned to the issue again and again, public opinion in many ways has remained steady. Significant opposition to race-conscious admissions shows up repeatedly in surveys and elections.

In 1996, California voters approved an affirmative action ban that included a prohibition on the use of race in public university admissions. In 2020, voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic state rejected a proposal to repeal the ban. Fifty-seven percent opposed the repeal — slightly more than the share that supported the ban 24 years earlier.

In four polls from 2003 to 2016, Gallup found at least two-thirds of Americans saying college admissions should be “solely on the basis of merit.” In 2013, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found just over three-quarters of Americans opposed allowing universities to consider race. In 2019 and again this year, the Pew Research Center found more than 7 in 10 adults saying race or ethnicity should not be a factor in admissions.

The latest Post-Schar School poll was conducted online Oct. 7-10 among a national sample of 1,238 adults, including at least 160 interviews each with adults who are Black, Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, with larger error margins for racial and ethnic subgroups. The survey used the SSRS Opinion Panel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households.

The poll found many Americans unenthusiastic about the idea that state universities should strive to enroll a student body with a racial and ethnic makeup similar to the demographics of their home states. Twenty-eight percent say that goal is “not too important,” and 32 percent say it is “not at all important.” Just 14 percent say it is “very important,” while 27 percent say it is “somewhat important.”

There is also broad opposition to a custom known as “legacy” admissions, in which many colleges or universities give a preference to applicants whose parents went to the same school. Three-quarters of Americans overall call that inappropriate.

“That’s not equitable,” said Caren Peterson Baldé, 63, a schoolteacher from Chapel Hill, N.C., who is Black. “Maybe you’re the first generation in your family that’s able to go to college. And there’s someone else in the pool that’s a little bit ahead of you just because their parents went there?”

One key question is whether people feel that applicants who share their own racial or ethnic background have a fair shot in the college competition.

About 7 in 10 African Americans say Black applicants face unfair disadvantages when they seek entry to a good college. About half of Latinos say Hispanic and Latino applicants are unfairly disadvantaged. About one-third of White people say Black and Hispanic students are unfairly disadvantaged, while 13 percent of White people say that White students are unfairly disadvantaged.

The Harvard suit cast a spotlight on treatment of Asian Americans. The plaintiff alleged Harvard admissions was biased against Asian Americans, penalizing them in ratings of their personal qualities. A federal judge ruled in 2019 that the renowned private university had not illegally discriminated against Asian Americans. But the case resonated with many Asian Americans who are suspicious of diversity policies at leading universities.

Roughly 4 in 10 Asian Americans, according to the Post-Schar School poll, say applicants of Asian ancestry face an unfair disadvantage. Half say Asian Americans have a “fair chance,” while about 1 in 10 say they have an unfair advantage.

“It’s a little bit unfair towards my race,” said Bhavik Patel, 33, of Glendale, Ariz., who is pursuing an advanced degree in pharmacy. Patel is Indian American. Too often, he said, colleges are susceptible to stereotypes that people who share his background are “smart” and “well off” and don’t need support. He said colleges should focus on academic merit and factors such as poverty.

But he hesitated to endorse a prohibition on the consideration of race. “I don’t want to completely ban something and not have a solution,” he said. “It has to be a better solution than what the current process is.”

However, the poll finds Asian American views on the key question before the Supreme Court largely track with overall public opinion: 65 percent support for a ban on race-conscious admissions.

“Skin color should not be part of the equation,” said Jonas Geronimo, 46, of Anaheim, Calif., who is Filipino American. “In the past, yes. In the past, definitely. But in today’s day and age, I don’t think it should be.” Geronimo is an economics analyst who graduated from a state university. Admissions, he said, “should be based on somebody’s achievements, somebody’s merit, the likelihood of somebody actually succeeding in college.”

More on race in education

The latest: The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday on the race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Conservative Supreme Court justices seemed open to ending the use of affirmative action in admission decisions, repeatedly expressing doubt that the institutions would ever concede an “endpoint” in their use of race to build diverse student bodies.

What happens next? The court will rule on the legality of using race as a factor in college admissions. The court can publish its rulings at any time, but because of the significance of this case, the justices will likely wait to finalize their opinions until the end of the term in late June or early July.

What is critical race theory? Here’s why Republicans want to ban CRT lessons in schools.

What has happened in schools? A Maryland school apologized after a viral video showed White students singing the n-word. A Brigham Young University investigation found no evidence that a fan yelled racial slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

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