Many public and private colleges have implemented affirmative action policies in their student admissions process. Although each college can create its own affirmative action policy, the ultimate goal is to make up for past discrimination toward minority students. This goal is usually accomplished by considering an applicant's race and gender as a favorable admissions factor.
Not Required by Law
Federal law permits the use of affirmative action admissions policies by public and private colleges, but doesn't require it. Nonetheless, a majority of colleges and universities have voluntarily made affirmative action a part of their admissions criteria, with the goal of creating more diversity among their student bodies.
Some Restrictions Exist
State and federal courts have acknowledged that it's possible for a college's affirmative action policies to be discriminatory when the advantages given to minority applicants become harmful to non-minority students. Over the years, courts have held that giving minority applicants preferential treatment based solely on their ethnic background can sometimes rise to the level of illegal discrimination. Instead, colleges must first review an application and reach the conclusion that the applicant's achievements warrant preferential treatment. In other words, an unqualified minority applicant shouldn't be admitted over a highly qualified non-minority. Similarly, quota systems that require that a fixed percentage of minority applicants be admitted are also illegal.
Preferential Treatment for Federal Student Aid
All public and private colleges that receive federal financial aid are permitted to use an applicant's minority status when allocating funds among students. This means that if two students have similar applications, more financial aid can be given to a minority student on the basis of race or gender. However, there must be evidence of past discrimination at the specific school or it must be attempting to create a more diverse student body before affirmative action policies can be used for federal financial aid awards. Similar rules apply to private scholarship awards at colleges that receive federal funds.
Affirmative Action Policies Continue to Evolve
Discrimination law is one of those areas where it's difficult to establish clear and comprehensive rules. In other words, no document exists that can tell you whether a college's affirmative action policies are discriminatory. Rather, courts and state governments make these determinations over time on a case-by-case basis. Given the complexity of affirmative action, some states (such as Texas, Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, and New Hampshire) have eliminated affirmative action from their state-supported college admissions policies through ballot initiatives, court cases, and state legislation.
An Education Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding affirmative action in college admission and financial aid policies is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an education lawyer.