Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Affirmative Action: Equal Opportunities or Not?

By Yodit Tsegaye | Inquiry Essay

My highly anticipated senior year of high school had begun, which meant the confusing, dreaded college application process had begun along with it. I had already researched many potential universities and colleges and finally decided to which schools I was going to apply. However, I was just beginning to thoroughly read the actual applications. I came to realize that each of the different schools asked its prospective students unique essay questions. The only similarities between the applications were the Personal Information sections, a question concerning one’s prospective major, and lastly, the demographic section. Of course academic institutions need their applicants’ name and address in order to contact them. It is also understandable that the colleges and universities inquire as to the prospective majors of their incoming freshman class. However, I did not quite understand the necessity of the demographic section of these applications. The only reason I could conjure for their presence was for purely statistical purposes. It was during this time, when my peers and I began applying to colleges, that I began hearing of quotas universities used when examining student applications. This information troubled me as I was unaware of how these quotas would directly affect my admission to the colleges that utilized them. I thought about varying demographic categories such as gender and age, but the racial demographic was the one that particularly disturbed me within the context of the college admissions process.

This new topic of conversation of racial quotas quickly gave rise to another one: affirmative action. The high school I attended was composed mostly of students with a vast range of ethnicities and backgrounds. Thus, a large majority of my peers only considered the positive effects of affirmative action, hoping it would give them a slight advantage over their counterparts when they were being considered for admission to the schools at the top of their lists. I, an African American student, surely was not blind to the benefits that could be provided to me through affirmative action. Although I was appreciative of these benefits, I could not help but question how they would affect many of the admissions decisions that were going to be made concerning my college applications. I also began to think about what advantages the colleges received from affirmative action. If a large majority of higher educational institutions in the nation employ affirmative action, there surely must be some benefits associated with it. Thus, it seems as if the benefits of affirmative action do not outweigh the burdens it puts on students who are both directly and indirectly affected by the inequalities of this legality.

I applied to some of the top schools in the nation and for some prestigious scholarships, as did several of my classmates. Naturally, I was extremely anxious and nervous to learn to what academic institutions I would and would not receive admission. I also began to worry about the reasons why I would or would not be admitted to the universities of my choice. If I was not admitted, it would most likely be because I did not meet the qualifications or standards of the schools. I have always considered myself a hard worker and have accredited my academic success to my work ethic and determination. So, when it came to receiving college acceptance or scholarship letters, I assumed that I would be receiving them because of my credentials and not the color of my skin. The letters finally arrived, and though I was rejected by some schools, I had been accepted to many prestigious universities and also received some noteworthy scholarships. I then learned that many of the students in my senior class, who happened to be Caucasian, were rejected from many of the institutions to which I believed they would be admitted. These students had very similar academic and extra-curricular profiles as me, so it was hard to believe that they were not accepted to these colleges. It was then that I came to the realization that race was actually an imperative determining factor in a student’s admission to institutions of higher learning.  This realization also caused me to reflect upon the massive impact affirmative action has on the college admissions process and what specific criteria my college acceptances were based upon. Not only is race heavily weighted in the determination of a prospective student’s acceptance, but affirmative action is used to unjustly provide certain students with an advantage in the college admissions process.

Affirmative action. In the opinions of some it, “help[s] large numbers of well-qualified minorities gain the educational advantages they will need to move steadily and confidently into the mainstream of American life…” (Horn and Marin 4). If minority populations are increasing exponentially, does affirmative action still effectively provide these advantages? Trends in national datasets collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) imply that, in fact, they do; “college participation rates have consistently…increased for all racial/ethnic groups” from the years 1975-2004 (Horn and Marin 116-117). Although it seems as if affirmative action is still serving as a truly successful mechanism according to these statistics, NCES also shows that the completion rates of those minorities who began postsecondary studies has decreased over the nearly thirty year period (Horn and Marin 117-118). There has been a steady incline in minority college enrollment, but the decrease in college completion rates perhaps illustrates that affirmative action is not effectively contributing to minority success. Affirmative action is, however, effectively contributing to the amount diversity in student populations on college campuses, an immensely desired characteristic of these institutions. It is possible that the positive effects of affirmative action are being directed more to educational institutions than to the intended beneficiaries, students.

If some evidence exists that affirmative action may not be as beneficial to students as some claim it is, does affirmative action undermine true minority achievement, crediting success not to hard work and capability, but instead to affirmative action itself? According to researcher Patricia Marin and professor Catherine Horn, opponents of race-conscious admissions policies argue that affirmative action “stigmatizes the…beneficiaries of the preferences- both in the eyes of others and in their eyes” (Horn and Marin 4). If affirmative action is not even a necessity in society today, it gives a reason for self-sufficient, hard-working minorities to question their accomplishments and successes, just as I did. It also allows those of non-ethnic backgrounds to argue that successful minorities did not have to work as hard to reach their academic goals and only received admission to educational institutions because of their minority status.

I could not help but think about how my classmates who were not of a minority race felt when the college gossip of everyone’s acceptances and rejections circulated around our senior class. I am sure I was not the only one who observed that more minority students were accepted into certain schools than non-minority students. Were the non-minority students experiencing reverse discrimination? Reverse racial discrimination has generated much controversy and public debate in our society today and has, in fact, been the subject of two contentious United States Supreme Court cases. Reverse racial discrimination is defined as “the question of whether a person who is not of a minority race may be disadvantaged by preference given by official action to others on the basis of race alone” (Rossum 1). Is it fair to students with no ethnic background when universities and colleges factor a student’s race into his or her consideration to the university? I wondered whether or not it was fair that my peers with a very similar academic profile as myself were not given the opportunities to attend the same universities as me because of the difference in our skin color.

Two students who had similar experiences to those in my senior class are Marco DeFunis, Jr. and Allan Bakke. In 1970, Marco DeFunis, Jr. graduated from the University of Washington magna cum laude, but was “denied admission to the…1971 first year class of the University of Washington Law School while 38 minority students with lesser qualifications…were admitted through a special minority admissions process.” He then proceeded to charge the university and its law school with “denial of equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment” (Rossum 1). Allan Bakke’s case varies only slightly. Bakke graduated from the University of Minnesota, applied twice for admission to the University of California’s medical school, and was denied both times. After learning that those admitted through a special minority admissions program had significantly lower grade point averages and scores on the Medical College Admissions Test, he too brought suit against the university, “claiming that he had been the victim of invidious discrimination because of his race” (Rossum 2).The Supreme Court held that Bakke was indeed discriminated against by the minority-admissions program at the University of California Medical School, but they also held that “universities could legally consider race as a factor in admissions”(Horn and Marin 43). This court case is a landmark one because it established “the fundamental legal framework that has been used to justify and implement affirmative action in higher education admissions for more than 30 years” (Horn and Marin 15). Because affirmative action is legal and is encouraged to increase diversity, perhaps it compromises the ultimate mission of universities to admit well-rounded students of high academic caliber, “making intellectual ability a ‘secondary attribute,’” while diversity is held at a higher priority (Horn and Marin 4).

It has been over thirty years since the Bakke Supreme Court case, and affirmative action is still widely practiced in colleges and universities all over the United States today. One can only assume that it is bearing positive effects for the profile of many college campuses in the arena of diversity. However, we must also stop and consider its negative effects on both minority and non-minority students. Racial quotas put minority students at an unfair advantage to their non-minority counterparts, but also generate doubt in minority students of their academic merit. Affirmative action creates opportunities for many, but studies show that not all of these opportunities are fully taken advantage of. Although affirmative action was created to battle discrimination, it has created a form of reverse discrimination many believe has a ubiquitous presence today in the college admissions process.  I was given the opportunity to attend a university with remarkable academic standards free of cost while many of my classmates had to choose alternative options because of their race. I was grateful, indeed, but I also questioned whether I actually met the standards of the universities I received acceptance to, or if I was accepted simply to enhance their profiles. Was I just filling the racial quota of minority students that had to receive a certain scholarship or was every candidate considered without the racial bias? Students should not have to question their academic ability nor should qualified students be denied opportunities because of their race. It seems as though the costs of affirmative action are outweighing its benefits for both minority and non-minority students alike. Until the costs and benefits are balanced out, a number of students will lose valuable opportunities while a number of students develop a habit of second guessing their best.


Farron, Steven. The Affirmative Action Hoax. Santa Ana, California: Seven Locks Press, 2005.

Horn, Catherine L. and Patricia Martin. Realizing Bakke's Legacy: Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, and Access to Higher Education. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2008.

Rosum, Ralph A. Reverse Discrimination. New York, New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 1980.

Tierney, William G. "Merit and Affirmative Action in Education." Urban Education. 42.5 (2007): 385-402.

Vanderwaerdt, Lois. Affirmative Action In Higher Education. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982.