Although the U.S. Supreme Court slammed the door on race-conscious admissions practices this past June, Americans still broadly believe in the importance of diversity in higher education. And Americans have complex beliefs about affirmative action, with nearly two-thirds agreeing that it reduces racial inequities, but fewer supporting it. These findings come from this year’s Varying Degrees Report, based on an annual survey by the left-leaning non-profit New America. The report shows that American views on diversity and equity in higher education are nuanced—or perhaps confused.
The survey included nearly 1,500 American adults and was conducted between late March and May—before the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. It found that three-quarters of Americans believe that federal and state governments, as well as colleges and universities, should work to ensure that students from underrepresented backgrounds have access to higher education. Nearly four out of five people surveyed agreed that all students benefit when campuses reflect the racial diversity of the nation. And nearly seven out of ten said that colleges should admit more students of diverse backgrounds and hire more diverse faculty and staff.
There were partisan differences in the results. 90% of Democrats agreed at least somewhat that colleges should admit more underrepresented students, in contrast to 56% of Republicans. And 88% of Democrats said that all students benefit from diversity, compared to 68% of GOP members.
“There’s a significant difference, a 20-point spread, but [support for diversity] is still in the majority for Republicans,” said Rachel Fishman, acting director of the education policy program at New America and an author of the report. “I think that’s a bit of a surprise.”
There was also a clear consensus that race-conscious admissions accomplishes its goals. Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed, at least somewhat, that considering race or ethnicity as one factor in admissions decisions reduces racial and ethnic inequities in higher ed. (This included 81% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans.) A similar percentage agreed that considering race or ethnicity gives underrepresented students an increased chance to pursue education after high school, with a similar partisan split.
Notably, Asian Americans were the ethnic group most likely to concur with these propositions: 78% agreed that race-conscious admissions reduces inequities and 80% said that it helps underrepresented students pursue post-secondary education. The report highlights this in light of claims at the Supreme Court by the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, that affirmative action damages Asian Americans and that they broadly oppose it.
In spite of Americans’ overall support for diversity in higher ed and their agreement that race-conscious admissions practices work, they were less supportive of affirmative action itself. Only 50% agreed that race or ethnicity should play even a minor role in admissions decisions, including 66% of Democrats and 30% of Republicans. That’s lower than the percentage that thought athletic ability should play a role.
“People see the value of [diversity], but they want it to be a meritocracy, so they want people to be able get there on their own,” said Fishman. “Americans don’t realize how much the deck is stacked against students of color from the get-go.”
The report did show a higher level of support for race-conscious admissions than other recent surveys: a Pew poll found that 33% of Americans approved of colleges considering race and ethnicity, and a CBS poll found only 30% support. According to Olivia Cheche, a program associate with New America’s higher education team and an author of the report, the reason may be the phrasing of the question.
“By wording the question in a way that clarifies that [race] is really just one factor, then you’re going to see that Americans are open to these ideas,” said Cheche.
This year’s survey also reflected widespread concern about the cost of college, with only 48% of Americans agreeing that higher education is affordable for anyone who wishes to pursue it. In spite of this, however, two thirds of Americans believe that everyone has an equal opportunity to enroll in education beyond high school, including four out of five Republicans and three out of five Democrats. Similar numbers agreed that everyone has an equal chance to complete their program of study.
“That’s the myth of the American dream, that if you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then everyone can have success in this country,” said Dr. Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that works on higher ed access. “The concept that everyone has the same access and opportunity to complete is a false narrative.”
Del Pilar was not surprised that Americans thought that everyone had equal access to college despite the high price.
“We don’t view access and affordability as interconnecting,” he said. “We look at them as separate because it’s easier to think that folks have access than to try and tackle the issue of affordability. It eases us of the responsibility of having to provide the resources that folks need.”
Although Cheche said that the findings on equal opportunity made her “less optimistic,” she took hope from the findings overall.
“We see broad support from Americans for issues of racial equity on campus,” she said. “During a time where a lot of ideas of DEI are being challenged, it’s good to see.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com