Half of Americans disapprove of colleges and universities taking race and ethnicity into account in admissions decisions, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, while one-third approve of this practice. But a close look at recent polling on the issue shows that attitudes about affirmative action differ based on whom you ask — and how you ask about it.
The Pew survey shows a clear divide along racial and ethnic lines: A majority of white and Asian adults disapprove of racial consideration in admissions, while Black Americans largely approve and Hispanics are about evenly split.
Most respondents who disapproved of affirmative action said the policy made the admissions process less fair overall, and a narrow majority said it would result in less-qualified students being accepted. Affirmative action supporters, by contrast, largely said it ensured equal opportunity and improved students’ educational experiences.
A parallel study released by Pew this month showed a partisan divide on the issue among Asian Americans, the group at the center of one of the Supreme Court cases. A majority of Asian Democrats who had heard of affirmative action said it was a good thing, while Asian Republicans were more likely to say it was a bad thing. Asian Republicans with a postgraduate degree were nearly twice as likely to disapprove of affirmative action than those with a high school diploma or less.
Polls about affirmative action have proved to be highly sensitive to how the questions on the topic are asked, possibly reflecting some uncertainty or ambivalence in the public’s views.
When questions are framed around the Supreme Court’s role in deciding the issue, there tends to be greater consensus across racial and ethnic groups in favor of affirmative action. When a May survey from The Associated Press and NORC asked whether the Supreme Court should prohibit consideration of race in college admissions, about 60 percent of Americans, nearly uniformly across racial and ethnic groups, said the court should not.
However, when explicitly asked whether race and ethnicity should be considered in admissions, a majority of the public — white and nonwhite adults alike — said it should not be a factor, according to a February Reuters/Ipsos poll. And similarly, a different Pew poll from last year found that sizable majorities across racial and ethnic groups said race should “not be a factor” in admissions decisions.
The differing levels of support for affirmative action in the more recent Pew survey might reflect not just a contrast in how the question is asked — it specifically referred to selective universities using the practice to “increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the school” — but also shifting attitudes about affirmative action over time. The topic has taken on more prominence in the public conversation after California voters rejected affirmative action at the ballot box in 2020 and as the Supreme Court considered the issue, suggesting that a subset of voters might be giving the concept a fresh look.