College Admissions in America

As the public discourse about college admissions policies and processes continues, a federal judge earlier this year heard closing arguments in a case against Harvard University that is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court and could influence the future of college admissions practices.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that most Americans (73%) say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions. Just 7% say race should be a major factor in college admissions, while 19% say it should be a minor factor.

While majorities across racial and ethnic groups agree that race should not be a factor in college admissions, White adults are particularly likely to hold this view: 78% say this, compared with 65% of Hispanics, 62% of Blacks and 59% of Asians (the Asian sample includes only those who speak English).

There are also large partisan gaps on this issue. Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party are far more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners to say that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions (85% vs. 63%). These party differences remain when looking only at White voters: 88% of White Republicans say that colleges should not consider race in college admissions, compared with 66% of White Democrats.

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When asked about eight admissions criteria that colleges may consider, high school grades top the list. About two-thirds of Americans (67%) say this should be a major factor; 26% say it should be a minor factor. And while many colleges have stopped requiring standardized test scores as part of the application process, 47% of Americans say these scores should play a major role, while an additional 41% say they should play a minor role. Most Americans also think colleges should take into account community service involvement.

In addition to race or ethnicity, majorities also say that colleges should not consider an applicant’s gender (81%), whether a relative attended the school (68%) – a practice known as legacy admissions – or athletic ability (57%) when making decisions.

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Across several of these items, views vary by education, with those holding at least a bachelor’s degree more likely than those with less education to say they should be at least a minor factor in college admissions. For example, college graduates are more likely than those with less education to say colleges should consider race (38% say it should be a major or minor factor vs. 22% among those without a bachelor’s degree) or being a first-generation college student (57% vs. 43%) in admissions decisions.

My takeaway is that the core issues are about explicit and implicit biases associated with race and ethnicity, and not race and ethnicity themselves. It isn’t just about grades, scores, or athletic ability. It is about norms. As a real-life example, a White male college applicant with a 4.2 GPA can publicly complain about Harvard University Admissions and then received admission to Harvard, while an Asian American male college applicant with a 5.2 GPA and an honorable discharge from the United States Army received rejection from the University of Florida.