Americans might have complex opinions on achievement gaps between white students and students of color. But on one issue their views are unambiguous – they do not want colleges to adopt race-based college admissions policies as a remedy. As Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup Politics explains, nearly 70% of Americans believe that who gets a slot in incoming freshman classes should be determined solely by merit – not by the applicant’s race.
Only 22% of whites believe race should be a factor in admissions, while 48% of black respondents believes it should play a role.
Perhaps the most interesting breakdown was among Hispanic Americans who answered the question. The members of the demographic group that is growing at a record pace believe – 59% to 31% – that merit should be the one and only thing that counts.
Race-based college admissions policies have been in the news since on one of the last days of the session, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, the major affirmative action case of the decade. While not prohibiting the use of race entirely, the court, in a 7-1 decision, narrowed substantially the circumstances under which it can be used.
The case began when Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land, Texas filed a lawsuit after she was turned down for admission to the Austin campus of the University of Texas. Fisher argued that the decision was motivated by race – which is used by UT as a factor in enrollment decisions for students who fail to qualify under the auto
Although the impact of the decision on colleges and universities is uncertain, it has, at least so far, not had effect on public opinion. According to Jones, Gallup polls timed to coincide with two other major affirmative action cases in 2003 and 2007 show that opinions on the issue have held relatively steady over time.
Americans may be less likely to support affirmative action in college admissions because the question raises a potential specific consequence of such programs — admitting some minority students who would otherwise not be admitted on their merits alone — which could in their minds outweigh the positive aspects of the policy mentioned in the question. The general question on affirmative action, asked prior to the question on college admissions, does not discuss any pros or cons of affirmative action, suggesting Americans mostly have a positive reaction to the concept or term.
Jones says that Americans’ views are somewhat in conflict. Although they broadly support affirmative action, when asked about specific applications, they tend to reject them. Furthermore, they also appear reluctant to endorse a large amount of government involvement in efforts to improve the lot of minorities. Although the majority of black and Hispanic respondents believed that government has a substantial role to play in improving the social and economic position of minority groups, the majorities were by no means overwhelming – 54% and 60%, respectively.