Emily Ekins and Jordan Gygi
The Supreme Court again attracted much attention in June when it struck down Harvard’s and University of North Carolina’s use of racial preferences in admissions, a practice known as affirmative action. President Biden expressed anger over the decision and said “We cannot let this decision be the last word. The court can render a decision, it cannot change what America stands for.” But what does the American public think of affirmative action?
Polls do not produce a clear picture of where Americans stand on the issue. Question wording strongly influences if people say they support or oppose considering racial background in college admissions. Research has long shown that question wording impacts how people answer survey questions. However, patterns do emerge that give insight into how Americans are thinking about affirmative action. In short, questions that ask if Americans support “affirmative action” but don’t describe the policy find a majority support it. In contrast, surveys that don’t use the phrase but rather describe what affirmative action is find most Americans oppose it.
We examined nearly two dozen recently conducted surveys that asked about affirmative action (See Appendix A). In almost every survey question that uses the words “affirmative action,” a majority of Americans express support for the policy. For example, when NPR asked, “Do you think affirmative action programs in hiring, promoting, and college admissions should be continued or should be abolished,” 57% of Americans said they should be continued, while 38% said they should be abolished.1
However, survey questions that did not use the phrase “affirmative action” but rather described how the policy is implemented consistently found a majority opposed to the practice. For example, the Economist/YouGov asked, “Do you think colleges should or should not be allowed to consider an applicant’s race, among other factors, when making decisions on admissions?” In response, 64% of Americans said they do not think colleges should be allowed to consider race in admissions decisions, while only 25% said this should be allowed. Every survey that omitted the words “affirmative action” revealed majority opposition. Specifically, phrases such as “racial preferences” and “consider race as a factor” in admissions tended to elicit opposition.
Opposition to affirmative action policies in college admissions declined somewhat when the question mentioned its intent to increase the racial diversity of the school. In contrast, Americans expressed much greater opposition if they were asked if race should be a factor, among other factors, in college admissions decisions without explicitly mentioning its goal.
Survey questions that described affirmative action without mentioning the purpose of the policy found about 7 in 10 Americans oppose it:
“…be able to use race as a factor in admissions…” 69% opposed (YouGov)
“…consider an applicant’s race as part of their admissions policies” 70% opposed (CBS/YouGov)
“…be able to use race as a factor in admissions” 74% opposed (YouGov)
“…be allowed to consider an applicant’s race, among other factors…” 65% opposed (Economist/YouGov)
Survey questions that mentioned the intention behind affirmative action policies as well how they are implemented found about 5 to 6 in 10 Americans oppose it:
“.…be allowed to use race as one of the factors in admissions to increase diversity…” 58% opposed (Quinnipiac)
“…giv[e] Black and other minority college applicants preference in college admissions to make up for the past and present inequalities” 55% opposed (YouGov)
“…take into account…race and ethnicity…as one of the factors…in order to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the school…” 50% opposed (Pew Research Center)
These data suggest that Americans may not know what affirmative action actually is. They may have a vague idea that these programs are intended to help increase diversity–a cause worth supporting. However, they disapprove of the way colleges go about doing it. The majority of Americans appear uncomfortable with the idea of using someone’s race as a factor in college admissions decisions. It’s likely that the practice of giving some applicants preference over others because of their race violates a sense of fairness that is important to many people, even if the idea of increased diversity remains important to them.
Black Americans have diverse opinions about affirmative action.
Black Americans tend to express majority support when the words “affirmative action” are used in the question. However, when the words are omitted and the policy is explained as colleges using race as a factor in college admissions, Black Americans tend to express greater opposition to the idea. Across different question wordings, data show that many African Americans oppose affirmative action, many support it, and many have mixed feelings about it.
For instance, when asked in a CBS/YouGov poll, “In general, do you think afﬁrmative action programs in hiring, promoting, and college admissions should be continued, or do you think these afﬁrmative action programs should be abolished,” 78% of Black Americans said they should be continued and only 22% said they should be abolished.
But in some surveys, a majority of Black Americans opposed affirmative action policies. For example, YouGov asked, “Some people think that public colleges and universities should be able to use race as a factor in admissions. Other people think that they should not be able to. What do you think?” Nearly two‐thirds (64%) of Black Americans said public colleges should not be able to use race as a factor in admissions, while only 36% said they should be able to.
The Pew Research Center found ambivalent support among Black Americans when the survey question mentioned both the policy and its intention. The survey found that less than half (47%) of Black Americans approved of “selective colleges and universities taking race and ethnicity into account in admissions decisions in order to increase the racial and ethnic diversity at the school.” But 53% either opposed it (29%) or weren’t sure (24%) if they approved or disapproved.
Although African Americans are more supportive of affirmative action compared to Americans overall, there is a great deal of variation and diversity in their views.
Most Americans don’t differentiate between public and private universities when forming opinions about affirmative action
The Court’s decision extends to both public universities and private institutions that accept federal funds. However, some point out that private colleges and universities should be treated differently since they are not run by the government and should thus be allowed to use race as a factor in their admissions policies.
However, the Court did not make this distinction, and it appears that most Americans do not either. A June YouGov poll asked respondents two separate questions about if private and if public universities “should be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions.” In both cases majorities of Americans oppose the use of affirmative action policies: 69% oppose for private universities and 74% oppose for public universities. Nevertheless, Americans were about 5 percentage points more likely to oppose affirmative action in public colleges than private ones. This means that some Americans do make the distinction. (Some of this difference could also be due to measurement error.) But overall, these results show that most Americans do not make a distinction between private and public universities when it comes to employing affirmative action policies.
Recent polls about affirmative action do not paint a clear picture. When simply asked whether they support “affirmative action,” a majority of Americans stand by the policy. However, when asked whether some racial groups should be given preference in college admissions, the implementation of affirmative action, a majority of Americans are opposed. Likely, Americans support the basic principle that guided the adoption of affirmative action, namely that college campuses should be diverse and that racial minorities should be more fully embraced in these spaces. But also it’s likely that many Americans feel the practice of using race as a factor in college admissions violates the value of fairness. The perception of these two values being in conflict may help explain why Americans’ opinions of affirmative action are highly sensitive to how the policy is framed in survey questions.
1 We found one exception to this pattern in which a question that mentioned affirmative action also found most Americans opposed. However, this question from Reuters/Ipsos also described the policy as “admitting students based on race or ethnicity” which found 60% opposed.