In 1970, white students made up 91% of college enrollment. In 2021, that number decreased to about 50%, with Black students accounting for 12.6% of college enrollees, Hispanic students 21.4%, and Asian students 7.1%. Undergraduate representation is more proportional to the US population today.
The percentage of Black, Hispanic, and Asian 18 to 24-year-olds enrolled in college has steadily increased since the Bakke decision in 1978, with all three groups seeing an increase between 14 and 18 percentage points.
Although less proportionally representative, elite universities are admitting a greater number of minority students than before Bakke and are an important tool for economic mobility. Once admitted to highly selective schools, students from low-income backgrounds are able to earn nearly the same as students from wealthy backgrounds.
By allowing highly selective schools to take into consideration more than SAT scores and class ranking, admissions offices are able to combat systemic barriers that traditionally keep talented students from their pipeline.
State bans on affirmative action show us what will happen. Following California's ban in 1996, enrollment of students of color at the state's top schools fell more than 50% and earnings for Black and Hispanic graduates decreased.
After Michigan banned affirmative action in 2006, the University of Michigan's Black student population fell from 7% in 2006 to 4% in 2022, in a state whose high school population is 17% Black. Further, Black and Native student enrollment has declined by 44% and 90% since the ban.
There is overwhelming research that supports the benefit of racial and other forms of diversity in all classrooms. Learning environments that are racially, economically, and otherwise integrated increase educational experiences and outcomes for all students, including White students whose admittance to institutions of higher education has been privileged over Black and other students of color.
Diverse learning environments prepare students for a global economy that relies on the ability to interact and work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Continued innovation in ever changing markets cannot be readily achieved without unrelenting efforts to ensure diversity in the very institutions that provide educational pathways to such career fields.
Overall, race-conscious admission policies address barriers and promote diversity and equity in higher education by considering race as one of many factors in a holistic review of applicants. They do not rely on quotas and have been upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional and beneficial for educational quality and social justice.