Affirmative action: The impact of diversity in education

Chelsie Lui
15 min readAug 19, 2020

The Project

As part of TechSoup and ParsonsTKO’s Summer 2020 Data Strategy Mentorship Program, our team (Juliana Albertini, Muaz Aznan, Timo Budiono, Chelsie Lui, and Amy Oh) came together with a shared interest in studying the relationship between diversity and education. Our project started in early June 2020, and our team had a million different ideas in mind: from studying the effects of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs on university campuses to analyzing campus climate for racial minorities in STEM programs.

However, something that caught our attention was ACA5, a bill that would reinstate race-based affirmative action in California college admissions if passed in November’s vote. As a team of college-aged students, we were intrigued by the controversy and press the bill received. We all knew of the implications of affirmative action, that it was a process in place to provide a “leg up” for individuals who had been systemically and historically disadvantaged by institutions such as colleges. While that sounded well and good, we were collectively curious about the widespread controversies around the concept of affirmative action and, as it has been barred from Californian college admissions, does it actually alleviate racial inequalities in practice?

Through investigations into past research and analysis of student data, our team has created a guide to navigating the convoluted, controversial history of affirmative action ― including insights about how affirmative action can, will, and has already affected college admissions.

History of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action as a concept broadly refers to the policies set to offset historical discrimination against minorities in various institutions, from employment to education. These “policies, programs, and procedures” can give preferences to these targeted groups in hiring, admissions, and contracts, to name a few social benefits.

Affirmative action in the United States was first discussed during the mid-20th century amongst the civil rights movement. In President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925 government contractors were instructed to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” While this sentiment advised for affirmative action, as well as asserted the government’s stance towards equal opportunities for all individuals, Executive Order 10925 was voluntary, and did not require or outline the terms of affirmative action.

The next steps towards enacting affirmative action was under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s term. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically within the passage Title VII, described preferential treatment to be given to American Indians. However, The Act failed to address the extent of affirmative action across other specific demographics. Rather, the passage stated:

“Nothing contained in this [law] shall be interpreted to require any employer, employment agency, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee subject to this [law] to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group because of the race, color, religion, sex, or national origin of such individual or group on account of an imbalance which may exist with respect to the total number or percentage of persons of any race, color, religion, sex, or national origin employed.”

However in 1965, a year later, as civil rights leaders began to more firmly agree “colorblind” policy in enforcing civil rights (as is seen in Title VII), Johnson was pushed to endorse affirmative action as a method of ensuring Black individuals under the new civil rights legislation could compete equally with whites. This accumulated into Executive Order 11246, which required the federal government and its institutions to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” While this better instated the legality of affirmative action as a part of governmental processes, the language did not define the terms of affirmative action nor did it require affirmative action outside of federal governmental processes.

An affirmative action plan was seriously adapted during President Richard Nixon’s term. Called The Philadelphia Plan, this affirmative action plan “required government-determined, numerically specific percentages of minorities to be hired.” As it was met with pushback and described as a “quota system”, the administration was able to argue for the adaption of this model by referring to the percentages as targets, rather than minimum standards, and that recruiters and employers simply had to act in “good faith” to accomplish the set standards. These standards were legitimized into the previously initiated Executive Order 11246. And following the model’s recommendations, legislation was passed across institutions on the federal level to adhere to The Philadelphia Plan (or similar models).

Controversy: Quotas, Mismatch Theory, and Prop 209

One of the greatest controversies associated with affirmative action is its relationship to “the quota system”. It was (and is still) feared that affirmative action is a quota system in which quotas are set based on different demographic factors, particularly an individual’s status as a racial minority. The quotas set were seen to undermine the (assumed) meritocratic nature of admissions, and judged negatively as a form of “reverse racism” ― privileging one demographic over another. Viewed as “set asides”, affirmative action was immediately challenged following its implementation.

It can be acknowledged that quotas and affirmative action policy are similar on the surface, and the difference treads a thin line. The processes can be better explained in this video.

Pushback was seen across all federal institutions, but was first challenged in 1978 by the Board of Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, in which the US Supreme Court decision ruled that “quotas may not be used to reserve places for minority applicants if white applicants are denied a chance to compete for those places”. This would be the first of continued controversy around affirmative action practices in California college admissions.

Another popular argument against affirmative action is the mismatch theory, in which it is hypothesized that students admitted through affirmative action are set to fail due to the quotas ― which would admit them at a lower set of standards compared to their peers. This is not to say that race should be (or can be) correlated with one’s level of academic achievement, but the rigor of affirmative action policies. And while this theory’s reliability is met with belief, hesitancy, or outright denial, it does bring up the debate around what affirmative action should look like and the weight of academic credentials in admissions.

In November 1996, the California Civil Rights Initiative, also known as Proposition 209, was passed by California voters to prohibit government institutions in the state from giving preferential treatment to individuals based on their race or sex. This would thus ban racial preferences in college admissions beginning with the incoming freshmen class of 1998 (due to legal setbacks).

ACA5

Assembly Constitutional Amendment №5 (ACA5) is “a resolution to propose to the people of the State of California an amendment to the Constitution of the State, by repealing Section 31 of Article I thereof, relating to government preferences,” or more colloquially, would repeal Prop. 209 and reinstate affirmative action policy in the state.

On June 10, ACA5 was passed by the California State Assembly, and was also passed by the California State Senate later that month. For Californian voters, this amendment will be on the ballot in November.

Supporters of the resolution believe reinstating affirmative action is imperative to addressing the systemic inequalities seen in institutional bodies across the United States, especially in education. And that Prop. 209 for the last 24 years has retained barriers for people of color in education, employment, and various other sectors of life. In the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd, mass demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice have spread across the United States and abroad. These developments have increased the urgency towards reassessing the 1996 proposition and seeking methods to best address the continuing racism within higher education.

However, critics of ACA5 are weary of the resolution and how affirmative action may affect admissions into the state’s colleges ― and if a quota system would be reinstated. Various arguments have been made about the effectiveness of affirmative action and if it allows “less qualified” students (in comparison to others) admission into universities to meet the quotas and standards raised by affirmative action policy.

Since the passing of Prop. 209, college admissions in California have been banned from race-based affirmative action in their processes. With the introduction of ACA5 to the ballot this November, our team’s research will look at how the ban on affirmative action by Prop. 209 has affected admissions, racial demographics by major, and resulting employment income by race.

The Data

Methodology

The data collected for this project was sourced from publicly available, government databases, specifically from the National Science Foundation (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES)) and the California Postsecondary Education Commission. This project looks at data collected from between 1996 to 2000, 2006 to 2010, 1992 to 2008, and 2018. No data was collected for the years outside of those specific time ranges. Additionally, our data sets (aside from the first two sets with each other [1996–2000 and 2006–2010]) cannot be compared directly due to the data being from different sources.

Our team cleaned and visualized the data to glean insights around what changes can be seen in racial and ethnic demographics in college admissions post-Prop. 209 and employment earnings trends can be seen across racial and ethnic demographics.

Visualizations

  1. Visualizations of College Enrollment Data in California between 1996–2000 by Juliana Albertini
Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 1996.
Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 1996.
Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 2000.
Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 2000.

From 1996 to 2006, the percentage of Latino and Asian students enrolled in the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems increased by 4.2% and 1.5% respectively, while enrollment of White students decreased by 5.1%. However, it should be noted that Hispanic and Asian populations in CA had an average annual growth rate of 3%, which was nearly 7 times faster than that for White students.

In the same time frame, there was a 0.5% and 0.6% decrease in enrollment of Native American and Black students respectively. Therefore, we can presume that Black and Native American students in the UC and CSU systems were disproportionately affected by Proposition 209 being taken into effect officially in 1998 for undergraduate students.

Business Administration, Management and Operations remained as the most popular discipline among students, enrollment increasing by nearly 13% from 1996 to 2000. The top 5 popular disciplines within the CSU and UC systems among minority students were Business Administration, Biology, Psychology, Liberal Arts, and Computer & Information Sciences. From 1996 to 2000, Business Administration remained as the most popular discipline among minority students. Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering were the two most popular STEM disciplines enrolled by minority students within the UC and CSU systems.

From 1996 to 2000 there was a 4.45% increase in enrollment of minority students in STEM disciplines. Additionally, there was a 2.6% and 3.3% increase in enrollment of minority students across all disciplines in the UC and CSU systems respectively.

2. Visualizations of College Enrollment Data in California between 2006–2010 by Juliana Albertini

Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 2006.
Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 2006.
Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 2010.
Students enrolled by race/ethnicity in 2010.

From 2006–2010, the following race groups experienced these changes in enrollment numbers. The number of Black students decreased overall, but Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander student enrollment increased over this period.

  • Black: 31,000 to 28,000
  • Latino: 119,000 to 146,000
  • Asian: 113,000 to 126,000

Number of Minorities enrolled in the UC and CSU systems grew from 2006 to 2010 by about 9% (compared to an overall student enrollment growth by 4%). From 2006–2010, the CSU system reported an overall growth of minority enrollment CSU reported an increase of roughly 3% and the UC reported an increase of 3.5%.

Top 5 minority-enrolled disciplines in the UC/CSU systems in 2006 were Business Administration, Biology, Psychology, Liberal Arts, and Electrical and Communication Engineering. However, in 2010, the top 5 minority-enrolled disciplines in the UC/CSU systems were: Business Administration, Liberal Arts, Biology, Psychology, Sociology. The discipline of Liberal Arts nearly doubled their minority enrollment between 2006 to 2010. From 2006 to 2010, Business Administration still remained as the most popular discipline among minority students.

From 2006 to 2010, the most popular (enrolled) STEM discipline amongst minority students was Systems Engineering. By 2010, the two STEM disciplines of Computer Engineering and Biochemistry/Biophysics entered the top 5 most enrolled STEM disciplines by minority students. They were previously not in the top 5 (compared to enrollment data from 2006). However, the percent of minority students enrolled in STEM remained virtually static at 72.81% from 70.88% in 2006.

3. Visualizations of Change in Employment and Earnings in California by Race/Ethnicity from 1992–2008 by Timo Budiono

Change in employment and earnings in California between 1992 to 2018.
Change in employment and earnings in California between 1992 to 2018.
Rate of change in employment and earnings in California between 1992 to 2018.
Rate of change in employment and earnings in California between 1992 to 2018. Between 2012 to 2013, earnings decreased across Asian, Black, and White populations, while employment increased. More investigation into this observation is needed.

Changes in employment and earnings varied across racial and ethnic groups. The Asian demographic saw the greatest increase in both (employment and earnings), with the employment increase outpacing earnings increase. For the white population, the earnings increase was greater than the employment increase.

Interestingly in 2013, there was a large increase in employment paired with a large decrease in earnings, suggesting a high number of low-paying jobs were added to the market. There was an approximate 12% decrease in earnings, corresponding to an approximate 30% increase in employment. This appeared to most significantly impact the Black population. More generally, the Black population between 2011–2013, saw a dip in earnings and an increase in employment, where employment outpaced earnings. More research needs to be made following what specific event(s) led to this large decrease in earnings.

4. Visualizations of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred in the United States by Race/Ethnicity in 2018 by Timo Budiono

U.S. Bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2018 by population and overall, separated by race/ethnicity.
U.S. Bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2018 by population and overall, separated by race/ethnicity.

White students had the largest share of the overall population, as well as the largest share of Bachelor’s degrees awarded compared to all other surveyed ethnic groups. Asians and Whites were the only demographics with a higher percentage of bachelor degrees relative to their percent share of the overall population. Blacks and Hispanics lagged behind in Bachelor’s degrees compared to their share of the overall population by 2–4%.

Discussion, Reflection, and Limitations

Recalling our initial question of how affirmative action (and the ban of affirmative action) has affected college admissions of (racial) minority students, we have gleaned that since before Prop. 209, Black and Native American students were already decreasing from the population of CSU and UC systems, and continued to decrease through 2010. However, it should be noted that Asian and Latino student populations steadily increased during the 2006 to 2010 period. While general consensus on the effectiveness of affirmative action varies, our findings show an overall increase in minority students at public Californian universities post-Prop. 209, or after affirmative action was banned.

Data visualization of student enrollment by race and year, comparing data from 1996, 2000, and 2006
Comparing the data collected from 1996, 2000, and 2006, there has been a steady increase in the population of Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander students in higher education. (Visualization by Amy Oh)

However, while there was an overall increase in minority students ― is that enough? And how much of that has to do with the specific ban on affirmative action?

While the overall number of minority students increased at these universities, Black and Native American students still decreased, while the population of Latino and Asian students increased. In discussing minority representation, it is imperative that we are cautious of mistakenly aggregating large, diverse populations of individuals into blanket categories, such as “minority student”; While our definition of minority students focus on students of color as racial minorities in higher education, this term encompasses individuals with vastly different experiences and levels of privilege. In future research on this topic, greater care should be taken to analyze minority students’ with consideration to intersectionality ― across not only race, but other traits such as gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, citizenship, ability, and so forth.

And additional point to note is that while race-based affirmative action was banned due to Prop. 209, research shows that public Californian universities, particularly schools within the UC system, have attempted to account for the ban on affirmative action through restructuring their admissions processes to remain holistic through changing the weight given to SAT scores, high school GPA, and family background. Future research on this topic should account for the specific variables used in California higher education admissions processes.

In terms of our exploration into employment and earnings across racial and ethnic groups. Our initial goal was to track the industry retention of minority students from their undergraduate education (based on major) into their employment years (industry and income/earnings within that industry) before and after affirmative action. Additionally, we wanted to see if within specific industries (particularly in STEM), if there would be earning discrepancies amongst different racial and ethnic groups. We were unfortunately unable to find public data sets that would allow us insight into these questions (But this visualization from the US Census begins to look into these outlined research questions from a national [rather than CA specific] perspective!). From our limited research into earnings across racial and ethnic groups, we found that change in employment and earnings was varied across populations. This could be due to unaccounted variables, such as the 2008 recession and the expansion of the high-tech industry, to name a few events.

Conclusion

So, should you vote YES on ACA5? Is affirmative action good?

At the end of it all, our team believes the message of affirmative action to restructure historically and systemically racist institutions, such as higher education and government, to better serve and represent minority populations is good. But in practice, due to the various vague and half-baked legislation around affirmative action, there is scarcity in compelling, longitudinal data to support it ― and the damage has already been done. Many Americans have mixed views on this subject; In which a 2014 Pew Research Center article found the public strongly backed affirmative action, only to find in 2019 more Americans disagreed that race should be a factor in college admissions.

We encourage our readers to further explore this topic ― and to advocate for greater research into affirmative action as policy and proposals are made around it in your state. Support racial justice and diversity and inclusivity on university campuses, but don’t let that be the end of the conversation. How do admissions support (or not support) individuals across minority groups, and what does affirmative action look like in practice? These are questions that passed through our minds, and what we hope to inspire you to think about before you check your ballots this November.

Interested in hearing more from our team? Check us out at TechSoup and ParsonsTKO’s Data for Social Impact Conference on August 26, 2020.

Check our out our full research here.

Resources

The discussion around affirmative action ― why it matters to you and how policy around it will change is ongoing. Below are some resources we recommend to help you better understand the history and methodology of this process.

What we get wrong about affirmative action, Vox

History of Admissions at UC Berkeley, PBS Frontline

Affirmative action, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Download our team’s educational resources here:

About the Project

History of Affirmative Action

Visuals and Insights

References

A brief history of affirmative action. (n.d.). UCI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. http://www.oeod.uci.edu/policies/aa_history.php

Antonovics, K. & Backes, B. (2014). The effect of banning affirmative action on college admissions policies and student quality. Journal of Human Resources, 49(2), 295–322. DOI: 10.3368/jhr.49.2.295

California Legislative Information. (2020). ACA-5 government preferences. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201920200ACA5

Chang, A. & Chakraborty, R. [Vox]. (2018, Dec. 10). What we get wrong about affirmative action [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuUDhfKV3bk&feature=youtu.be

Chingos, M. M. (2013, March 7). Are minority students harmed by affirmative action?. Brookings Institute. https://www.brookings.edu/research/are-minority-students-harmed-by-affirmative-action/

Drake, B. (2014, April 22). Public strongly backs affirmative action programs on campus. Pew Research Center: FactTank. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/22/public-strongly-backs-affirmative-action-programs-on-campus/

Friedersdorf, C. (2015, Dec. 15). Does affirmative action create mismatches between students and universities?. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/the-needlessly-polarized-mismatch-theory-debate/420321/

Graf, N. (2019, Feb. 25). Most Americans say colleges should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions. Pew Research Center: FactTank. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/25/most-americans-say-colleges-should-not-consider-race-or-ethnicity-in-admissions/

Hartlep, N. D., Ecker, M. M., Miller, D. D., & Whitmore, K. E. (2013). Asian Pacific American college freshman: Attitudes toward the abolishment of affirmative action in college admissions. Critical Questions in Education, 4(1), 1–20.

Massey, D. S., & Mooney, M. (2007). The effects of America’s three affirmative action programs on academic performance. Social Problems, 54(1), 99–117. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.calpoly.edu/10.1525/sp.2007.54.1.99

Moreno, P. B. (2003). The history of affirmative action law and its relation to college admission. Journal of College Admission, 179, 14–21.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, May 18). Affirmative action. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/affirmative-action#ref739796

Turetsky, K. & Purdie-Vaughn, V. (2015, December 17). What science has to say about affirmative action. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-science-has-to-say-about-affirmative-action/

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Chelsie Lui

Communication studies student with an interest in tech comms and social impact. Part of Activism Always.