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.


  1. Charlie CDH2 years ago

    I’m for it I think it doesn’t matter on the score of your act but it shouldn’t determine on race at all also.

  2. FrankieB2 years ago

    Affirmative action = Employment Apartheid.

  3. Angilyne Bailey3 years ago

    Affirmative Action is a law that does not only apply to college campuses but it’s practiced literally everywhere. You name it. It’s in the media, commercials, the health care department, public facilities, the corporate world, I mean everywhere! Right now in America, there are no laws to support Affirmative Action, and as a woman of color I see the affects of life without it. I get the impression that being treated poorly as a woman of color is like picking up with the tab of owning up to a standard of accountability amoung the white-and-more-qualified people. An easy lead for people to throw more wrenches to an already flawed system. Now being judged by the content of our character leaves more room for ambiguity to selective prejudice.

  4. JIN THOMPSON3 years ago


    1. JIN THOMPSON3 years ago


  5. Helen Deines3 years ago

    In contrast to many other comments, I found the question very clear. Perhaps my teaching experiences were different (17 years in the graduate school of a large state university, 16 years in both graduate and undergraduate programs of a small Catholic university)–I found my classes at both enriched the more diverse the enrollment. Both were overwhelmingly white when I began teaching, as am I. Both changed dramatically over the years–I learned from students of color, and I researched with more focus, challenged myself to ensure that my materials reflected different voices. The students in my classes expressed appreciation for the opportunity to have courageous conversations across differences, to become more skilled at functioning in a diverse world, to be aware of power. And, yes, sometimes we were uncomfortable. Growing!

  6. Frank3 years ago

    A very strange poll. The question is too vaguely worded to be of use to those who truly want to get at what the public is thinking. Describing the actual scenarios that affirmative action at university and asking if the respondent approves would be far more useful.

    Equally important is that this poll is missing neutral ground. Affirmative action practices could be seen as a good thing, a bad thing, or something that is both good and bad or neutral.

    Increasing minorities getting a college education is a good thing to most Americans, but that’s not what’s being debated.

  7. Kent Siegel3 years ago

    I really have to question the methodology and results of your Affirmative Action poll. If, as your poll unequivocally states, that Americans “strongly” support affirmative action, how did Michigan (a very blue state) pass Proposition 2 by a landslide 58% to 42% margin. This margin is so outside your polling that I have call your poll, itself, into question.

  8. strick93 years ago

    What we have here is a FAILURE to communicate… Cool Hand Luke circa 1967

    No one is saying that people shouldnt be given the opportunity to succeed,
    what they are saying is EARN it, who cares what color your skin is?

    As long as “We the people…” allow the politicians and media to continue the Racial SnowJob,
    they will continue to dumb down america. (someone wake Al up, i can hear him snoring)

    The issues we face today are not racial (are there still racists in the world? yes on BOTH sides of the fence). we need to step away from the ledge and ask ourselves a question.


  9. Mia3 years ago

    I was in favor of affirmative action until I started teaching comminity college. A minority of my students are white and Asian and they usually have the high scores. It is painfully obvious that some of them belong in top tier universities (I suspect they are victims of AA). Most of my lower level student are hispanic. Some are totally unprepared for higher ed, others take advantage of the opportunity to catch up and I expect they will be successful upon transferring. I think it is important to let the cc’s sort these students out rather than throw them into the university system where they degrade the institution and ultimately drop out. Our universities are now toys, they are the engines of innovation. Let’s keep them healthy for own sake.

  10. Robert Knaus3 years ago

    If Justice Kennedy is right then all the Jim Crow laws were valid. I’d like to see a vote on gun control that limits firearms and see how that fares!

  11. Ali_Bertarian3 years ago

    Pew could not be any more intellectually dishonest in the presentation of the poll results as a contrast to the state-passed laws banning racial preferences in school admissions. You write “The 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. ” This is a blatant lie, because your poll question did not ask people if they wanted “racial preferences” in school admissions. Your poll question asked a more subtle “In general, do you think affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing or a bad thing?”

    Did your poll designers not consider the possibility that people could be in favor of “general” methods “designed to increase the number of black and minority students,” but be against using racial preferences to do so? The original meaning of the phrase “affirmative action” consisted of the encouragement of minorities to apply for admission to universities.

  12. rob earl3 years ago


    Apparently yours was not the only organization to conduct a survey on this issue. Rasmusen Reports did also and has come to a strikingly different result. “49% Oppose Affirmative Action in College Admissions, 25% Favor.” Here’s the link.


  13. Carmen3 years ago

    There’s one thing that nobody wants to talk about. If you believe i that a certain race is, if not inferior, at least ‘different’ from yours, you wouldn’t consider them the “best” candidate for a job, other than that of maid, farm worker, janitor, etc. Isn’t that the way it worked in most of the US for about 100 years? It wasn’t the members of that group who accepted the status quo who got lynched, was it? The children and grandchildren of those who did the lynching are trying to take back their power. Their refrain is: “We no longer need Affirmative Action”; “We no longer needed Federal oversight of Voting Rights”; and “The War Between the States” was over States Rights, not slavery.”

  14. OP KAHUNA3 years ago

    Make that approval by WHITES 55% MINUS 1.
    I thought it was a good move way back when but expected it to be a limited time program. That limited time has passed long ago. The program by and large has been another failing government program. Minorities have not picked up the gauntlet and adapted to the rigors required to earn the right of public support – of education and other affirmative action programs. But that’s not universal; bless the ones that have seen the opportunities and made the effort to succeed. Its time to pull the plug; What is required is demonstrated by many who have succeeded. Individuals need to wake up and take the imitative like so many “others” have and are doing.

  15. cathleen trainor3 years ago

    Affirmative Action-should not be based on race -period-.We constantly moan about income inequality and very little is accomplished. My wish is to use affirmative Action to base decisions on income -with the right grades and scores a student from a low income family should be able to attend college and a percentage of them will be given preference with minimum tuition..

  16. sam samsil3 years ago

    obviously the voters of Michigan thought otherwise. I’ve been called by these type “surveys” before and it appeared to me the caller asked questions and posed thenm to get the answer they desired. I was disappointed in Soto’s dissent in the Michigan decision. Dr King asked for balcks to be treated equally. Soto or any Hispanic shouldn;t have to have special treatment to get into college. If you smart enough to get in you are equal.

  17. James3 years ago

    This is a form of “positive discrimination.” The only people who would agree this is a good thin is if you are getting special gifts from the law. For example, hiring for well paying jobs, the few that are left, specifically state in their hiring practices that they hire minorities and women first. If you do not meet the criteria, then you may be hired as a contractor with significantly less pay and benefits. This is especially predominant in companies that provide services for the Government. It is Government subsidies discrimination! It is frustrating and sad. Quotas, special laws, and rights based upon race, religion, or sex is NOT a FREE society. This should have been the first law struck down by Obama because I can’t become President and he doesn’t why? Its political. This law promotes hate and discrimination and should be struck down in all forms. Lets take race out of the picture all together. Maybe then some healing can begin. It’s an all-time low for the U.S. Government and its political stances. It’s embarrassing and disgraceful. Time for change.

  18. Bob Noxious3 years ago

    Public”strongly backs” does not equal “a majority” of the public – just the liberals and the minorities. I want the MOST QUALIFIED people in universities, as police, firemen, paramedics and in OUR government. Affirmative Action is preferential treatment to minorities and discriminates against “the best.” Compete and succeed. Maybe the government would be “efficient” (HA!) if it weren’t for hiring based on race or sex. Look at your local BMV. End Affirmative Action and forget about reparations.

  19. GrumpyOne3 years ago

    How is it that just about everyone I’ve spoken with seems to think that all forms of affirmative action are now counterproductive to the nation as a whole?

    I grow wary of “surveys” that report what I am not seeing or hearing.

    Instead we should be seeking the best and brightest to ensure our country’s future and not to just “feel good.”

  20. Klyf3 years ago

    AFFIRMaTIVE ACTION ? By any means is in itself defined as DISCRIMINATION !!!!! Try usung that approach in sports – I DOUBLE DARE YOU !

  21. Bob3 years ago

    It would seem to me we should be promoting and recognizing those who qualify for our colleges with all the opportunities at hand for everyone. We aren’t all equal. I know that yet other groups meet the entrance standards to enter our best colleges. . It is those who don’t qualify for whatever reason who should not be pushing out those who otherwise qualify.
    Or is this part of continuing dumbing down America? Are we saying to people unless they can sit next to someone who meets the academic standards, they can’t meet the standards? I sure hope not. But worst of all, those admitted by non-standard means have a terrible burden placed on them to meet college standards, again, for whatever reason, their graduation rate is lower than those who get into college without artificial help. Why program people for failure? Help these people obtain the necessary background to meet the standards instead of lowering the standards, standards which have served the nation well for a few hundred years. Yes, tailor the standards to the times, i.e., electronic advancements in communications but retain the standards. We are already showing the effects of people with degrees not able to get jobs. Could be our entire educational delivery system needs a tune up but lowering academic standards serves no one and certain not our nation. How is it people come from foreign countries legally with little preparation yet manage to succeed in our colleges? They come here because of our collegiate product, not because we lowered the standards. I don’t hear that lower the standards of the world’s best colleges outside the USA. Then why here?We are losing out to other nations which turn out students who enter their colleges based on meeting academic standards, not lowering them. We are losing the academic battle and lowering the academic standards to enter college isn’t the way to get back to making our nation great.

    If the majority of Americans want to lower academic standards to enter our better schools
    we are indeed losing the challenge of maintaining our past excellence. Fact is, I question whether we will ever gain it back.

  22. Constitutional_Lawyer3 years ago

    This question was poorly worded because it obscured whether “affirmative action” referred to race-neutral measures and innocent efforts like outreach, or whether it referred to giving an applicant an advantage or a disadvantage based on race.

    In a recent poll by ABC News/The Washington Post, 79% of whites and 71% of non-whites opposed the use of race in university admissions.

    When a poll asks about “affirmative action,” people are in favor; when it openly asks about “racial preferences,” people are opposed. Pew was disingenuous because it asked about affirmative action and then sold the results as being about racial preferences.

    1. Rocky Mountain3 years ago

      When affirmative action was first begun, I believe the concept, centered on employment, was “all other things being equal” which I take to mean that if an employer has a choice among four equally qualified candidates only one of whom is black then taking an ‘affirmative action’ would mean the selection of the black candidate. After thinking about this long and hard I don’t have a problem with this because in any case three people will be out of a new position no matter what the choice and the white people will probably have a better chance post rejection than the black candidate. But the education circumstance is totally difference because the advocates are asking that black admissions be given to demonstrably unqualified students which, at least in some cases, displace qualified white or Asian students.

      1. Constitutional_Lawyer3 years ago

        I believe JFK coined or popularized the term “affirmative action” to mean the absence of an illegitimate barrier. The Civil Rights Act of 1963 is a classic example of affirmative action because it prohibited, inter alia, employers from refusing to hire people because of their race.

        The more modern view that affirmative action means race preferences goes far beyond what JFK originally meant by that term. And that view is wrong, in any event, because affirmative action goes far beyond race preferences and includes such things as outreach and recruitment efforts.

        How is it justified to hire a black candidate over an equally qualified white one because of race? Will the white candidates that get rejected really have a better chance of finding a different job if racial preferences exist? In any event, does the answer to the last question matter? After all, how is it legitimate to rely on race to hire one person over another?

  23. slk3 years ago

    why wouldn’t any school or business, want the best available??? are we being told that every minority in school or business, got there on affirmative action??? i know for a fact, thats not true!!! there’re reasons why many minorities aren’t making it, and it points to where they grew up!!! chicago is the most gun controlled city in the nation, yet 9 were killed and 46 injured over easter weekend!!! laws aren’t going to change that!!! what i’d like to see, is instead of al and other leaders barking racism, have them acctually help their own supporters(has anyone ever seen al “not” dressed up???)!!! but thats not going to happen!!! so you can pass a thousand more laws, and it’ll never change!!! until they change their leaders, “nothing” will ever change!!!

  24. Dave3 years ago

    I find it amazing how many whites vote against their own interest. Especially knowing the whites that are most disadvantaged, are being discriminated against the most. Poor rural whites (think of the very depressed areas in the south west. Appellations and Ozarks areas among many others). Google “How Diversity Punishes Asians, Poor Whites and Lots of Others” and you will see the Princeton University study detailing this. Poor and disadvantaged is not solely a property of minorities. Not by a long shot. I’m 100% for all races doing well but this government picking the winning races game has been a complete boondoggle. A simple check of the minority welfare, poverty, out of wedlock births and crime stats clearly shows the problem has actually gotten worse in the 40+ years of racial affirmative action. My thoughts are that maybe ending all affirmative action might take the ammo away from white racism. I also can’t claim to have full understanding but personally, it would be quite a strain on my self esteem if it was common perception that the standards had to be lowered for me to succeed. Anti discrimination law is still a must of course, but only on a case by case basis and enforced the same for all.

  25. Janna3 years ago

    So what we have learned here is that groups of people being given SPECIAL treatment PREFER to receive that special treatment. While the group that is being discriminated AGAINST is less positive about the situation. If discrimination AGAINST a group is illegal, so special preference should also be illegal.

    1. Leslie3 years ago

      Making something “illegal” does not will away all the past injustices and the consequences to society, nor the disadvantages lived by those now trying to get into a college, or a job, or a home, or even a voting booth.

      To say affirmative action is “special treatment” or “special preference” and should be “illegal” is to deny that we have a diversity of talent across the country.

      An elderly descendant of former slaves may not be able to compete, but her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren now living will be given every opportunity to excel. People and their situations do not vanish when something like the long history of discrimination is made “illegal.”

      Law is both prospective and retrospective, if justice and equality have any meaning.

      We live as long as we do because even the most egregious need the time to learn to forgive themselves.

  26. Carrie McCann3 years ago

    Why not repurpose and redirect affirmative action to give preference to high-schoolers of any race or color who attend sub-par high schools?

    That can help *all* who need it, and shuts up those who say—not unreasonably—that traditional affirmative action is a race-based, and thus divisive, policy.

    1. slk3 years ago

      how about getting rid of the doe, and getting back to all schools being better!!!

  27. Topazinator3 years ago

    This is extremely hard to believe. Are you making up your own facts? Wait a minute, what was your sample population? Cut the horseplay, April Fool’s Day has passed.

  28. Emily Supanich3 years ago

    I am an American native and I do not believe in Affirmative Action. I believe we should all stand on our own merits. My uncle stood on his own in the 1940’s and went on to college. What made this country great in times past was people who didn’t have a college degree, but became great innovators by tinkering, sales and no hand outs. But I do believe help should be given when needed.

    1. slk3 years ago

      what we really need are more “emily’s”!!! God Bless You Emily!!!

  29. H. Shorb3 years ago

    What Americans are you polling? Certainly not Middle class American homes who can’t get a free ride like the homes of color. Working class folks who unfortunately have a couple of kids hitting college at the same time get no special treatment, and no free rides.

  30. eaasy3 years ago

    Affirmative action is a label to blanket the racist theme of the process. People of any color or ethnicity need to qualify, not simply be included, in the advancing education process. As to the polls – sample size counts, willingness to answer honestly counts, and phrasing of the question counts. This is yet another Pew Research ‘result’ for which the analytical tone was set well before the composition of the survey or compiling of the findings.

    1. janice3 years ago

      Need to qualify, not color, should be the only answer.

      1. slk3 years ago


  31. rob earl3 years ago


    I suspect your polling is seriously out of line with American opinion about Race-Based Affirmative Action. Without a doubt, support for it has declined precipitously in recent years and is trending downward. There’s an interesting article in the April 24th New Yorker about the case for Race-Blind Affirmative Action which clearly has many advantages in that it is designed to assist lower socio-economic groups in achieving upward mobility, regardless of race—a policy that is long overdue. Racial discrimination is an ugly concept, and has continued to vex us. As we have seen, even well-meaning efforts specifically designed to expunge it have only created similar evils. People are finally recognizing that.

  32. Dave3 years ago

    Here’s a deep dream…. How about equality for all regardless of race, gender, or other superficial attribute? What about THAT???

    1. slk3 years ago

      now it’s turning that dream, into reality!!!

  33. Troy Jordan3 years ago

    The question is useless if your aim is to learn anything meaningful. You are sacrificing credibility for a headline. Shame on you.

  34. Bryce3 years ago

    Affirmative action as a concept is fantastic to promote equality. RACIALLY BASED affirmative action is a disgrace. There are better indicators of disadvantage, income being just one of these. Focusing on the color of someones skin to determine whether or not to give them preference or penalty is, by definition, RACIST.

  35. Tv Good3 years ago

    Are there any polls revealing the # of academically qualified students ;overlooked /rejected,because of Affirmative action quota seats, needing to be filled? I think resources would be better spent if there was (mandatory) affirmative action daycare to enrich the lives of every child,because by the time you are school age5-6 ,it’s already too late .

  36. Chuck Crane3 years ago

    I think most people, myself included, would say “good thing” in response to your survey question “In general, do you think affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of Black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing or a bad thing?”

    But I think you would get a quite different result if you asked “Do you think that a White student with high grades and test scores should be denied admission to a university to make room for a minority student with lower grades and test scores?”

    In other words, your question is too vague to permit any useful inferences to be made from the responses. Trumpeting it as an overwhelming approval of affirmative action in practice is quite silly.

    1. Leslie3 years ago

      And quite a different response if people were asked: “Do you think there should be room among all the colleges to admit every student who is qualified?”

      The idea that adulthood in all matters is reached at eighteen, or with graduation from high school and that prepares anyone in society to “compete” is national lunacy.

      Other countries do not even have to ask the question, yours or mine.

  37. GGM3 years ago

    Why are Asian Americans not included in your poll? It is the fastest growing ethnic group in the US and yet they are treated as if their voices don’t matter!

    1. Bruce Drake3 years ago

      Unfortunately, our sample size wasn’t large enough to analyze views among Asians.

      1. Asian American3 years ago

        try harder next time

    2. janice3 years ago

      Latinos are the flavor of the year. Politicans want their votes.

    3. Dave3 years ago

      If you read the Princeton study I refereed to in another post it actually concludes that Asians are held to the highest standards for college acceptance of all.