April 22, 2014

Public strongly backs affirmative action programs on campus

Americans Support Affirmative ActionThe use of affirmative action programs in college admissions has roiled campuses and the public for years, leading to state-passed laws banning the practice and to today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding a Michigan voter initiative banning the use of racial preferences. But while the debate and the battles continue, a new Pew Research Center poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly support these programs.

Americans say by roughly two-to-one (63% to 30%) that affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a “good thing,” according to the survey conducted Feb. 27-Mar. 16. This was almost the same result Pew Research found in 2003.

Behind those overall numbers is a racial and partisan divide. 

While a majority (55%) of whites support affirmative action programs on campus, that compares with 84% of blacks who believe they are a good thing and 80% of Hispanics. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) Democrats back the programs as a good thing, as do 62% of independents; Republicans are mixed, with 50% seeing the racial preferences as a bad thing and 43% viewing them as a good thing.

The affirmative action battle in Michigan dates back nearly 20 years. In one case, two white students who had been denied undergraduate admission to the University of Michigan in the 1990s challenged the institution’s use of a selection process that gave a preference to “underrepresented minorities.” The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which held in 2003 that the university’s system was unconstitutional.

A second case involved the University of Michigan Law School, which used race as one factor among a host of others to achieve a diverse student body. A white student who was denied admission in 1997 filed a legal challenge. That case also reached the Supreme Court, which upheld the school’s “narrowly tailored” approach.

Today’s Supreme Court ruling involved a voter initiative in 2006 known as Proposition 2, which banned the use of racial preferences in response to the court’s earlier law school decision. (It passed by a 58% to 42% margin.) Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority today in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, said the courts did not have the authority to “set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

Polling by other organizations has found similar results to the new Pew Research survey. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted last May found that 53% of the public supported affirmative action programs in hiring, promoting and college admissions, while 38% opposed such programs. That poll, too, found racial divisions: Three-quarters of African Americans favored affirmative action programs, compared with 46% of whites.

When CBS News/New York Times asked those surveyed the reason they support these programs, 63% said it was because they increased diversity while 24% said it was to make up for past discrimination.

See the questionnaire results and survey methodology here.

Topics: Education, Race and Ethnicity

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.