News and Fake News About College Admissions

As demonstrated by both the complaint that Harvard discriminates against Asians (the Boston federal district judge’s decision is presumably imminent) and the furor over the spreading pay-to-admit scandal of rich parents buying their kids’ admission to selective colleges, affirmative action remains a hotly contested matter of ongoing public debate. The latest brouhaha comes from Washington state, and it promises to be a doozy.

Late Sunday night, April 28, Democrats in the Washington legislature passed Initiative 1000, which allows state agencies to use race in admissions, hiring, etc., barring only “quotas” and the use of race as “the sole factor for selecting a lesser-qualified candidate over another.” This would allow unrestricted use of racial preferences, since no affirmative action admission policies, for example, rely on race exclusively.

This measure, if it remains law, would repeal I-200, passed in 1998, which, like California’s Proposition 209 (1996) on which it was modeled, prohibited state agencies “from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting.” I-200 was placed on the November 3, 1998, ballot, and it was approved by a substantial majority of Washington voters, 58.2% – 41.8%.

But it may well not remain the law. No doubt fearing the voters, Democrats in the state house and Senate (except for one Democrat in each house; there were no Republican supporters) refused to place I-1000 on the ballot, instead making it law immediately unless repealed by referendum.

“By Monday morning,” the Seattle Times reports, “a group opposing the initiative had already filed a referendum seeking to put the measure to a public vote…. Roughly 130,000 signatures from registered voters would be needed by July 27 to get the referendum on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, according to the Washington Secretary of State’s Office.”

One can easily understand why Washington Democrats tried to avoid putting their race preference handiwork before the voters. Public opposition to the use of race has remained both strong and consistent,

Recently, for example, the Higher Education Analytics Center and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago have just released the results of their survey of public perceptions of college admissions. These results contain some interesting if not altogether surprising news about public attitudes toward college admissions, but some of the reporting of these results can also be described as fake news.

Among the findings:

  • 38% regard the college admissions process as fair; 36% consider it unfair; 25% say it is neither fair nor unfair.
  • 76% believe high school grades and 75% believe ACT or SAT test scores should be critical to admissions decisions
  • 46% believe colleges weigh ability to pay, but only 23% think they should do so.
  • 37% believe legacy status is considered, but only 11% think it should be.

Finally, and perhaps most important, 40% believe race is widely considered in admissions decisions, but only 27% believe it should be. 37% of non-whites believe it should continue to be considered while only 22% of whites do.

Thus 73% of respondents oppose the consideration of race, a result that includes 78% of whites and 63% of non-whites who favor eliminating the consideration of race altogether.

Many may be shocked by these numbers, but no one familiar with the history of public opinion surveys on affirmative action will be surprised. For example, a Pew Research Center survey released last month found that 73% of respondents (78% of whites, 62% of blacks, 65% Hispanics) opposed the use of race in admissions. In that survey, only 7% said they believe that “race or ethnicity should be a major factor in admissions decisions, and 19 percent believe it should be a minor factor.” Similar results have been found by Pew surveys for the past 25 years.

Pew’s results were typical, not outliers. A survey released last September by Boston public radio station WGBH asked respondents, “The Supreme Court has decided colleges can use race as one factor in deciding which applicants to admit. Do you agree or disagree with this ruling?” Only 24% agreed; 72% disagreed.

Similarly, a report, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” released last fall by the left of center group, More In Common, found that “a full 85 percent … believe that race should not be considered in decisions on college admissions.” The only one of seven “tribes” supporting racial preference were progressive activists, who make up about 8% of the population. “The rest of the country does not hold this view. Indeed, there is only half as much agreement among the next most supportive group, the Traditional Liberals (28 percent agree, while 72 percent believe race should not be a factor). And only 15 percent of Americans hold this view, leaving Progressive Activists largely alone in this particular viewpoint.”

A series of Gallup polls over the years have found similar results, as summarized by Gallup here last October. For example, four times between 2003 and 2016 Gallup asked:

Which comes closer to your view about evaluating students for admission into a college or university: applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, even if that results in few minority students being admitted (or) an applicant’s racial and ethnic background should be considered to help promote diversity on college campuses, even if that means admitting some minority students who otherwise would not be admitted?

The result: “Each of the four times Gallup has asked this question over a 13-year time period, between 67% and 70% of Americans chose the “solely on merit” option.

Indeed, there is probably no other contemporary issue where there is a greater gap between elite opinion — universities, Hollywood, the mainstream media, and virtually all elected Democrats — and mainstream views.

Again, that substantial majorities of Americans oppose racial preference policies is not news to those who have followed this issue, but it is so often ignored or hidden that it will surprise many. Since burying or hiding inconvenient information is as much “fake news” as reporting things that are not true, the reporting on affirmative action has more than its share of it.

Take, for example, Scott Jaschik’s article in Inside Higher Ed on the recently released NORC survey with which I began this essay. He relates that study’s finding regarding the general fairness of college admissions and the weight that should be given to grades and test scores, legacy preferences, and athletic ability, but there is no mention of the opposition to racial preference. (For an earlier discussion of that journal’s bias, seeEgregious Media Bias At Inside Higher Ed.”)

Perhaps Jaschik should be excused, however, since neither of NORC’s own releases about its new survey, here and here mention its findings regarding strong public opposition to race preferences.

It is easy to understand why diversiphiles in and out of higher education want to keep this news a secret. If enough people ever realized how unpopular racial preferences are, they might demand that the universities they support and the politicians they elect, comport with public opinion and get rid of them.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

One thought on “News and Fake News About College Admissions”

  1. One also has to ask about politically correct variance in polling. Remember how Hillary Clinton was leading every poll but lost the election — clearly not everyone supporting Trump was willing to publicly admit that.

    By the same token,, my guess is that the opposition to affirmative action is even greater then what polling has found.

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