Is Diversity in Higher Education Coming to an End?

The University of Michigan has long held a belief that diversity in the student population is a key component to advanced learning and prides itself on its historical advances in increasing the number of women and minorities in its student population. History has shown, however, that maintaining diversity can be a challenge, even with the best intentions. In spite of various initiatives, grants and the establishment of a Diversity Council, minority enrollment has fallen by more than 30 percent in its undergraduate and graduate programs.

Many are wondering if the banning of affirmative action in state schools has something to do with it.

On the heels of their affirmative action decision in June, the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing arguments on Tuesday, October 15, in another case. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action involves the University of Michigan, which was at the center of another landmark affirmative action case in 2003. This latest case will decide if states can ultimately prevent educational institutions from trying to increase diversity by considering race when all other policies have failed.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, et. al., the Supreme Court ruled that University of Michigan’s law school did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by considering race in admissions. At the same time, in the companion case, Gratz  v. Bollinger, the court found the school’s use of race in undergraduate admissions patently unconstitutional. The difference was that in the case of the law school, race was just one factor in a more holistic approach in considering highly qualified applicants to increase diversity in law school. The court agreed that the university’s approach was in good faith and supported by studies that showed diversity promotes better learning outcomes and prepares students for the workplace and society.

In contrast, the undergraduate admissions program, which still aimed for increased diversity, used an approach described as a quota system by using race as a deciding factor for admissions by guaranteeing admissions to qualified undergraduates who were a member of three specific racial groups: African-American, Hispanic and Native American. The university altered its undergraduate admissions policy to be in line with the one used for law school admissions.

In response to the SCOTUS decision, the person at the heart of the Gratz case, Jennifer Gratz, started a campaign for an amendment to Michigan’s constitution that would ban race based admissions in all public universities. In 2006, Proposal 2 was passed by 58 percent of Michigan voters, and affirmative action was banned. Minority enrollment plummeted immediately.

In 2006, 6.4 percent of the undergraduate freshman class were black, 5.3 percent were Hispanic. The numbers steadily decreased after the passage of Proposal 2. In 2012, the enrollment was 4.6 percent and 3.9 percent respectively. The law school, whose affirmative action program was deemed constitutional, also saw a decrease in black enrollment from 6.8 percent in 2006 to an average of about 3.9 percent since the passage of Proposal 2.

Does this mean that affirmative action policies are needed?

Michigan is one of ten states that ban affirmative action at state schools. While many universities have tried other approaches, such as using economic diversity or automatically admitting a percentage of high achieving students, minority enrollment still lags significantly in public universities. Though studies do show students that come from poorer school districts have an academic achievement gap, the lower  enrollment can’t be explained by lack of qualified applicants as that gap has narrowed. As the head of admissions at the University of Michigan’s law school indicates, “These are all people who anyone would want to admit.”

In other words, there is competition for good candidates, often from private universities.

Private colleges and universities are somewhat immune to many of the legal challenges of affirmative action policies since they don’t take public funds. Still, minorities are significantly underrepresented in private institutions, and enrollment has declined dramatically since the 1990s. White students were five times more likely to apply to a private university than a black or Hispanic student and were two to three times more likely to gain admission. The study also found that almost 60 percent of the enrolled students came from families representing the top quarter of income distribution, regardless of race.

The study went on to say that alternative programs such as Texas’ Top Ten Percent would not increase minority admissions in those universities. They concluded that the only explanation for the disparity is changes in the application and admissions policies of these universities.

Like affirmative action.

Even though researchers, educators and even the Supreme Court agree that diversity in education is crucial, many universities are shying away from any policy that even hints at giving preference to a particular group. The court challenges and overall bad publicity affirmative action has received in recent decades have caused them to try to be more equitable in their admissions. Legislative actions and voter initiatives, such as Proposal 2 in Michigan, show that public opinion is against affirmative action policies, believing that meritocracy will always work.

University of Miami professor Frank L. Sampson conducted a study on merit based admissions, using the University of California as a sample school. California banned affirmative action at all public universities through a voter initiative in 1996 (and subsequently saw a decline in minority enrollment). In the study, the participants were asked to evaluate the importance of academic achievement when assessing applicants. Participants indicated that high value should be placed on standardized test scores and class ranking. When told that Asian-Americans were admitted at a higher rate when using this standard, white participants responded that less weight should be placed on academic performance.

In other words, white participants supported academic meritocracy as long as it benefited people like them.

Affirmative action policies were initiated in the 1960s to address the real disparities and unfairness in employment, and later education, after decades of racial inequality and injustice. While universities may have begun their policies to right these wrongs, they quickly learned that it wasn’t just minority students who were receiving a better education. White students were also getting a new perspective on subjects simply by interacting with people of different backgrounds, people that weren’t like them.

As we await SCOTUS’ decision in the latest Michigan case, the person that started it all, Jennifer Gratz, is planning her campaign for the board of regents at the University of Michigan.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman4 years ago

Affirmative action is needed as long as we do not have a truly level playing field. I'll change my mind only when every family with a child is given a safe place to live, adequate shelter, nutrition, transportation, medical care, and education.

Also affirmative action for women has ended, because girls in general have higher grades and test scores than boys. The private colleges who can still do affirmative action are doing it for males.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld4 years ago

Adding a little perspective to the numbers in this article. The main reason for the appearance of a large drop in minorities is the addition of a new ethnic category in 2009 entitled 2 or more minorities. According to the University of Michigan statistics, underrepresented minorities constituted 13.15% of the undergraduate enrollment. In 2012, the number was 13.04% - no significant change. Compounding the statistics is an ethnic category called "other," which includes all those who did not report their ethnicity. Those numbers amount to 4.67% of the enrollment in 2006 and 5.60% in 2012. Claims of a steady decrease due to the passage of proposal 2 are unfounded.

Total underrepresented minorities at the University of Michigan has not fluctuated substantially from the average of 13.2% over the past two decades. More importantly, the dropout rate has declined substantially from a high of 37% in 1993 to 16% today.

Deborah W.
Deborah W4 years ago

If you've got the smarts, drive and commitment, you've earned your place in the system ... don't care if you're green with purple polka dots. EARN IT.

Ana Marija R.
ANA MARIJA R4 years ago

Thank you for the article & some comments.

Rekha S4 years ago

Diversity is so important, its the difference that make our world rich, diverse and wonderful. Without it the world would be nothing.

Aaron Bouchard
Aaron Bouchard4 years ago

thank you

Christine Stewart

Someone shouldn't be let in to college just because of the color of their skin- but if the grades and test scores are comparable, then diversity should win out.

Lindsey O.
Lindsey O4 years ago

Well, since it appears women are over-represented in university enrollment, we really need to start some affirmative action to get more men enrolled.....

Sounds foolish, doesn't it? But if men are under-represented then that's certainly not fair if we believe in proportional representation - and what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Or maybe it's just a natural variation and we don't need to artificially correct it. Or artificially correct anything else to do with college demographics.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld4 years ago

Based on U.S. total college enrollment and population statistics, total minorities are well represented on college campuses.

The census bureau is unavailable due to the shutdown, so unverified 2010 population statistics are shown here:

Notice that non-minorities constitute 66% of the enrollment, while minorities 31%. The white majority is currently 72% (64% if you subtract out mixed white and Latino). The problem is that some minorities are over-represented (i.e. Asian), while others are under-represented (Blacks and Hispanics). Women are also over-represented at 57% of enrollment. The numbers are much more skewed when comparing 4-year universities to regional or community colleges. This is due to a combination of high school education and costs.