Affirmative action seeks to increase the representation of women and minorities in employment and education, spaces where they have been historically excluded. However, the discussion of preferential treatment based on racial or socioeconomic status has ignited intense public controversy, as highlighted through the college admissions scandal. The scandal exposed the underlying tensions between class and race in the United States, exhibiting the ways in which privilege is opposed to fairness.

The following non-exhaustive reading list discusses the origins of affirmative action, the question of race- versus class-based affirmative action, and the effects of meritocracy in admissions.  

The Origins of Affirmative Action  

Tierney, William G. “The Parameters of Affirmative Action: Equity and Excellence in the Academy.” Review of Educational Research (1997).

Tierney provides a historical analysis of affirmative action in higher education. Why was it needed as a policy? He then outlines the philosophical and legal ramifications of affirmative action before evaluating criticism and alternatives. He concludes that affirmative action should not be about rewriting past wrongs. Rather, the goal is to develop policies that serve the public good by advancing diversity and facilitating a culture of public participation.

Stulberg, L., & Chen, A.  “The Origins of Race-conscious Affirmative Action in Undergraduate Admissions: A Comparative Analysis of Institutional Change in Higher Education.” Sociology of Education (2014).

This comparative and institutional analysis of race-conscious affirmative action policies found that affirmative action arose in two waves during the 1960s. The first wave of adoption occurred in the early 1960s, by colleges in the North that were inspired by the nonviolent civil rights protests occurring in the South. The second wave of adoption emerged in the late 1960s as a response to student protests on campus.

Race- vs. Class-Based Affirmative Action

Bok, Derek. “Assessing the Results of Race-Sensitive College Admissions.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (2000).

Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, discusses race-based affirmative action in college admissions. After studying more than 60,000 students, the author learned that most minority students attending selective colleges would have been rejected under a “race-neutral” admissions process. Bok assesses the different policy alternatives, like class-based affirmative action and top 10 percent plans. However, he concludes that these policies likely would not lead to the creation of racially diverse classes. He concludes that race-conscious admissions are the only solution that achieves diversity by admitting the best qualified minority students.

Cancian, Maria. “Race-Based versus Class-Based Affirmative Action in College Admissions.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (1998).

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Cancian tries to stimulate the impact of moving away from a race-based admissions process to class-based affirmative action by examining whether racial and ethnic minorities would be eligible for a class-based program. A class-based college admissions process likely would bound the eligibility of racial and ethnic minorities and would not have similar results to race-based affirmative action.

Holzer, H., & Neumark, D. “Affirmative Action: What Do We Know?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (2006).

This research report evaluates the effects of affirmative action on employment, college admissions, and government contracting. The empirical evidence shows that affirmative action programs shift employment, admissions, and government contracting away from white men and toward women and other minorities. However, these shifts in employment and college admissions do not have significant or large effects on the representation of minorities in colleges and university programs. Holzer and Neumark note that replacing race-based affirmative action with a different set of policies based on income or class rank likely would reduce the number of minorities enrolled at selective colleges.

Malamud, Deborah. “Assessing Class-Based Affirmative Action.” Journal of Legal Education (1997).

Malamud discusses the inception of a class-based preference system at UCLA. She discusses why class-based affirmative action will likely not achieve economic equity in higher education. She also discusses why a class-based admission process is  less likely to achieve racial equality.

Sander, Richard. “Experimenting with Class-Based Affirmative Action.” Journal of Legal Education (1997).

Sander discusses how UCLA incorporated class-based preferences into its admissions system and then evaluates the results. He discusses how the class preference system increased the socioeconomic diversity of the student body but had mixed results in preserving racial diversity.

The Challenges of Meritocracy

Liu, Amy. “Unraveling the myth of meritocracy within the context of US higher education.” Higher Education (2011).

Liu argues that in meritocracy, social status becomes intertwined with level of education. Colleges and universities are now the gatekeepers of class positions and access to them will determine future class status. Liu discusses how higher education should serve as an instrument to expand opportunity and not be reduced to a “defensive necessity.” She signals that it is important for researchers to examine the theoretical basis of meritocracy and its consequences in higher education.

Espenshade, T., Chung, C., & Walling, J. “Admission Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities.” Social Science Quarterly (2004).

Espenshade, Chung, and Walling examine the college admissions process and the preferences for athletes, children of alumni, and minority applicants. The authors note how elite universities give additional weight to different characteristics in which academic preferences for athletes and legacies often compete with the preference for minority applicants.

Critical Race Theory

Yosso, T., Parker, L., Solórzano, D., & Lynn, M. “From Jim Crow to Affirmative Action and Back Again: A Critical Race Discussion of Racialized Rationales and Access to Higher Education.” Review of Research in Education (2004).

Using the framework of critical race theory, the authors discuss the role of race and racism in shaping educational institutions. They also discuss how color-blind, diversity, and remedial legal rationales are shaped by race and racism, underlining how conservatives challenge affirmative action based on a “colorblind” rationale, where race-blind admissions ensure meritocracy. Liberals, on the other hand, defend affirmative action based on a diversity rationale, where minority students enrich the learning environment for white students. The remedial rationale wishes to grant minority groups access as a partial remedy for past and current discrimination.



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Review of Educational Research, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 165-196
American Educational Research Association
Sociology of Education, Vol. 87, No. 1 (JANUARY 2014), pp. 36-52
American Sociological Association
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 29 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 106-111
The JBHE Foundation, Inc
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), pp. 94-105
Wiley on behalf of Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring, 2006), pp. 463-490
Wiley on behalf of Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management
Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 47, No. 4 (December 1997), pp. 452-471
Association of American Law Schools
Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 47, No. 4 (December 1997), pp. 472-503
Association of American Law Schools
Higher Education, Vol. 62, No. 4 (October 2011), pp. 383-397
Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 5, A Special Issue: Social Science Examines Education (December 2004), pp. 1422-1446
Review of Research in Education, Vol. 28 (2004), pp. 1-25
American Educational Research Association