Study Shows Opinions on Affirmative Action Change When Asian-Americans Succeed

A recent study suggests that people who advocate merit-based college admission standards may alter their beliefs depending on which racial group benefits from said standards. Universities that employ affirmative action policies do so purportedly to correct racial imbalances. By taking race into account, colleges give certain minority applicants certain application advantages where historically systematic discrimination once prevented them from doing so. As a result, a non-minority student in the current ultra-competitive higher education climate may be passed over in favor of a minority student with lower test scores and less-impressive grades. As such, critics of affirmative action argue that the policy is unfair and makes getting into top schools more difficult for non-minority students.

However, research done by a University of Miami assistant sociology professor, Frank L. Samson, suggests that white people in particular change their view on merit-based standards when white people don’t appear to benefit from such a system.

Samson found these results by surveying white adults from California. They were separated into two groups, and each group was asked about the importance of various criteria when assessing students for admission into the University of California. One half was also given a prompt that indicated that Asian-Americans are disproportionately represented at the University of California. Those surveyed approved of an admissions system that rewards test scores, high school grades and GPA. But when made aware of Asian-Americans’ accomplishments, the participants stated that test scores and grades weren’t as important as other skills, such as leadership.

In 2013, Asian-Americans’ average SAT scores exceeded those of white Americans by around 1,500 points. In 2009, Asian-American group’s criticized the University of California when admission requirements were changed to no longer require SAT Subject Test scores. Since Asian-Americans have historically performed well on the SAT, advocacy groups argued that the change would reduce the number of Asian-Americans admitted to top schools.

Samson notes that individuals who oppose affirmative action and similar systems generally remark that if racial minorities cannot succeed in merit-based systems, that is evidence those racial minorities may be less capable due to the objectivity of objective merit-based systems. However, Samson’s study shows that this belief is not as unbiased as it appears. What individuals view as an appropriate measure of a student’s admissibility changes depending on which race appears to benefit.

Affirmative action remains controversial. In 2013, the Supreme Court saw a case challenging affirmative action at the University of Texas. They allowed affirmative action to remain but directed the case to a lower court for further review.