Alternatives to Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action is one of the most controversial policies ever enacted by the United States government. Under Affirmative Action, women, African Americans, and other minorities are given preferential treatment

when they apply for jobs and/or admission to college. In some cases, this has meant that qualified applicants who are white males have been passed over in favor of less qualified minority or female applicants. Those who support Affirmative Action claim that the policy is necessary to overcome centuries of previous discrimination and other disadvantages that minorities and women have faced. Those who oppose the policy point out that that Affirmative Action is just another form of discrimination, except in this case it is discrimination that is deliberately directed against white males. Opponents of Affirmative Action also claim that the policy lowers academic standards and takes away from the accomplishments of truly qualified women and minorities.

Affirmative Action programs have significantly improved diversity on America’s college campuses. However, there have been many legal and legislative challenges to preferential treatment based on race (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2002, “Executive Summary”). Various alternatives to the quotas and preferential treatment of minorities under Affirmative Action have been proposed, including the alternative of ending Affirmative Action altogether. An acceptable alternative would need to provide opportunities for minority students without discriminating against white males.

California’s approach to admissions
Schools in California are prohibited by state law from using race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as criteria for college admission (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2002, “Chapter Two Percentage Plans”). California has tried several different admission policies for its University system. Under one plan, no less than 50 percent to 75 percent of students would be admitted based solely on their academic achievements. This plan was phased out and replaced with a plan that provided automatic admission for students who graduated in the top 4 percent of their high school class. This plan was replaced in November 2001 with a plan in which students were considered “not just for grades and test scores, but also for evidence of such qualities as motivation, leadership, intellectual curiosity, and initiative” (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Chapter Two Percentage Plans). Each of these plans shows promise.

Percentage plans provide some guarantee that non-minority students will not be discriminated against on the basis of their race. At the same time, these plans also provide a way for minority students who might not otherwise qualify for admission to be considered. The 4 percent plan rewards the best students for their accomplishments without penalizing other students. Although the percentage plans are not perfect, they are more fair than systems that place more emphasis on race than they do on academic achievement.

Texas Top Ten
Texas guarantees college admission to the top ten percent of students from every graduating class (Watson & Levin, 2004). Like the California plan, the Texas Top Ten plan guarantees that no highly qualified students will be passed over on the basis of race. The plan does not, however, guarantee that lower achieving students will have equal access. Unfortunately, the Texas plan has resulted in some problems. The plan makes no distinction between students from higher achieving schools and students from schools that are less rigorous. Some top ten students are arriving at college to find that they are not prepared.

Universal Admissions
Another possible alternative to Affirmative Action would be to allow all students who want to attend college to do so. Under the current system, a college education is a privilege, not a right. A universal admission policy would change that and would provide all students with the right to a college education, just as all children in the United States are now entitled to a free education in grades Kindergarten through High School.

One of the arguments made for Affirmative Action is that minority students can succeed when they are given the chance. Lower admission standards for minorities are designed to compensate for any lack of educational opportunities these students may have had while they were growing up. The theory is that once these students are provided with the same opportunity, they will be able to catch up. A universal admission policy would eliminate all academic and other criteria for college admissions and allow all students, regardless of their past academic performance, to attend college. Under a universal admission policy, the only criteria that would be applied would be whether the student could afford to pay for classes. This may seem unfair to some. However, students who could not afford tuition could qualify for scholarships, grants, and loans just as they do now.

One potential problem with a universal admission plan is the lack of space at colleges. If everyone is allowed to attend for at least one year, then it is possible that there would not be enough teachers and other resources to go around. However, this problem could be solved through the use of Community Colleges, distance learning, and other alternatives.

Universal admission is the only truly fair way to provide equal opportunity to all students. It eliminates the bias of Affirmative Action and allows students who may have performed poorly in high school to have at least a chance to prove that they can succeed in college.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2002). “Chapter Two-Percentage Plans” Beyond Percentage Plans: The Challenge of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved on October 12, 2004, from

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2002). “Executive Summary.” Beyond Percentage Plans: The Challenge of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved on October 12, 2004, from

Watson, B. and Levin, M. (2004) “The Texas Top Ten Percent Rule: Bad Policy, Good Politics.” Austin Review. July 9, 2004. Retrieved on October 12, 2004, from