WASHINGTON – As the Supreme Court decides the fate of affirmative action, most U.S. adults say the court should allow colleges to consider race as part of the admissions process, yet few believe students’ race should ultimately play a major role in decisions, according to a new poll.
The May poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 63% say the Supreme Court should not block colleges from considering race or ethnicity in their admission systems. The poll found little divide along political or racial lines.
But those polled were more likely to say factors including grades and standardized test scores should be important, while 68% of adults said race and ethnicity should not be a significant factor.
The poll reflects general support for affirmative action even as the future of the practice remains in doubt. The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on lawsuits challenging admissions systems at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. With a conservative majority on the court, many college leaders are bracing for a decision that could scale back or eliminate the use of race in admissions.
Americans’ views on race in admissions — that it should be permitted but only be a small factor — generally line up with the way colleges say they use it.
Many colleges, especially selective ones, say race is one of many factors that officials can weigh when choosing which students get accepted. They say it is not a large influence but may sometimes give an edge to underrepresented students in close decisions.
Critics, however, say the impact is much stronger than colleges let on. A 2009 analysis by sociologist Thomas Espenshade at Princeton University found that, at highly selective private colleges, the boost for Black applicants was equivalent to 310 points on the SAT exam, compared to a 130-point bump given to poor students.
It’s unknown how many colleges consider race in admissions, and the practice has been outlawed in nine states, including California, Michigan and Florida.
Layla Trombley sees it as a matter of fairness. White students have long had the upper hand in admissions because of institutional racism, said Trombley, 47, who is half Black. Affirmative action helps even the playing field, she said.
“It seems like it's hard to get in if you don't have that help, just because we’re not traditionally thought of as industrious or smart or hardworking,” she said.
She said she experienced that kind of bias growing up in a mostly white area. At school, it felt like she was always underestimated, she said.
“It's under the radar," said Trombley, of Cortland, New York, who calls herself politically moderate. "It's not said directly, but it's implied, like, ‘You’re really good at this, but why don’t you try this?’"
In Roswell, Georgia, Andrew Holko also says colleges should be allowed to factor race in its admissions decisions. He sees it as a tool to offset imbalances in America’s public schools, where those in wealthy, white areas tend to get more money from taxes and parent groups than those in Black neighborhoods.
He sees that happen in areas like nearby Cobb County in Georgia, where schools in the predominantly Black southern end of the county are poorer than those in whiter areas of the suburban Atlanta county
“They don’t have computers to study with,” said Holko, 49, who is white and describes himself as politically independent. "They don’t have tutoring services available. He added: “Affirmative action is necessary to overcome those disparities.”
In Holko's view, race should be a factor of “high importance” to make sure college campuses reflect the racial makeup of their communities.
Among all Americans, 13% said they think race should be a very or extremely important part of the admission process, according to the poll, while 18% said it should be somewhat important. Black and Hispanic adults were the most likely to say it should be at least very important.
The poll found similar views when it comes to considering gender in admissions — 9% of adults said it should be very important, 14% somewhat important and 77% not very or not at all important. Men and women shared similar views on the role of gender.
By contrast, 62% of Americans think high school grades should be very important, 30% said they should be somewhat important. Nearly half said standardized test scores should be very important.
To Jana Winston, college admissions should be a matter of merit and nothing more. Students should be chosen based on their grades, test scores and extracurricular activities, she said.
“I don’t think race should have anything in the world to do with it,” said Winston, of Batesburg-Leesville, who is half white and half Cherokee.
Giving a preference to students of certain races is unfair to others who are just as academically qualified, she said.
“There’s a lot of kids that work really, really hard, and I don’t like the idea of them being pushed out of the way just because the college feels like they need to do something politically correct,” said Winston, 50, who is politically moderate and works at Walmart.
The Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action in decisions reaching back to 1978. The lawsuits at Harvard and UNC accuse those schools of discriminating against white and Asian students. Lower courts upheld admissions systems at both schools.
Many colleges also consider athletics when reviewing applicants, but the poll found that most Americans say it should have little influence. Just 9% say athletic ability should be very important, 29% say it should be somewhat important.
Similarly, few think family ties should be much of a factor.
Just 9% said it should be very important that a family member attended the school, and 18% said it should be somewhat important. Views were similar when it came to students whose families had donated to the university, with just 10% saying donations should be highly important.
The practice of giving a boost to children of alumni, known as legacy preference, has come under criticism in recent years from critics who say it favors wealthy, white students. Some prominent schools have abandoned it, such as Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University.
If the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action, some education experts believe more colleges will follow suit and drop legacy preferences to remove an obstacle for students of color.
Views on the Supreme Court overall have become more negative after last year’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to ban or severely limit access to abortion. About 12% of Americans said they have a great deal of confidence in the court, while 48% have only some confidence, and 39% have hardly any, according to the poll.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
The poll of 1,680 adults was conducted May 11-15 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.