Nearly three in four Americans disagree with using race in college admissions, although even more value racial diversity on campuses, according to a new WGBH News poll.
WGBH News commissioned Abt Associates to ask 1,002 adults across the country whether they agree or disagree with the Supreme Court's rulings that colleges can consider race in their admissions decisions. The poll found 72 percent disagreed, including a majority of black, Asian and Hispanic people who responded to the telephone survey, which was conducted Aug. 21-25 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Pollster David Ciemnecki of Abt Associates suggested most whites feel considering race as one factor in admissions is unfair, while most members of those racial-ethnic minorities worry the practice attaches a stigma to college students from those groups.
On the other hand, the national poll on higher education issues found deep support for racial-ethnic diversity among college students. Fully 86 percent responded that campus diversity is at least a somewhat important goal. Seth Brohinsky, a senior analyst at Abt, said it is rare to find even 80 percent of Americans agreeing on any question.
For the past 40 years, the Supreme Court has ruled colleges can consider race as one factor in deciding which applicants to admit as a way to achieve student diversity. The poll asked whether people agree with that ruling in a series of cases.
That precedent that is being challenged in a federal lawsuit against Harvard University set to go to trial in Boston in October. A group called Students for Fair Admissions has accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian applicants for undergraduate admission, a charge that Harvard has denied.
The lawsuit is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 15 before U.S. District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs, who was nominated by former president Barack Obama. Civil rights advocates say not only diversity at Harvard is at stake, but also at other selective colleges whose admissions practices resemble Harvard's, which a Supreme Court decision in 1978 held up as a model.
At Harvard on a recent sunny afternoon, underclassmen flocked to food trucks and then ate lunch in the shadow of Sanders Theater in Cambridge. Most students from various racial backgrounds who WGBH News interviewed said they support the consideration of race in admissions.
"Without looking at race, you're going to have a class of people who are really privileged and can do the things that can get you into a place like Harvard," said Micaela Rosen, a white sophomore from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Across the quad, Maxwell Ho from San Francisco, another sophomore, sat with other Asian-American students. He supports the limited consideration of race.
"It shouldn't be a heavily influential factor,” Ho said. “But it's part of the power dynamics and the representation of the society."
There's a theme here: Most of the students interviewed said racial diversity on campus is very important.
"At my high school, I was the only black person in my grade,” recalled Taylor Shirtloff-Hinds, a first-year student from Toronto. “I found that experience to be somewhat alienating."
On campus, a few students did say race should not be considered, but they all declined to talk on the record, saying they fear being ostracized.
WGBH News did a follow-up interview with a Colorado woman whose answers to the question on race in admissions and campus diversity reflect majority opinions in the poll.
"Race should not be a factor in college admissions because that doesn't tell you what their IQ is or if they'd be a good fit for your school," said Janet Bradford, who's white and lives in Wheat Ridge, a Denver suburb.
Still, the registered Independent said it’s important for colleges to have a diverse student body, in terms of race and ethnicity, as the poll question asked.
"You get a broader view of the world if you have more diversity," Bradford said.
Asked how colleges should achieve diversity without considering race, Bradford paused.
“You can also get diversity, not just through race but through what people are involved in,” she said. “Some people are into music, some people are into science, some people are into arts."
Northeastern law professor Daniel Medwed, who is also the legal analyst for WGBH News, said he detected a disconnect in the findings.
"Americans love hot dogs,” Medwed said, comparing their eating habits to their understanding of college admissions. “They want to grill their hot dogs. They want to eat their hot dogs, but they really don't want to know what's inside their hot dog or how the hot dog was produced."
Medwed suggested most Americans don't want to accept what it takes to diversify enrollments.
"If we were not to include race as a factor in this process, we would not be able to create a diverse campus, because race is this grave stain on the American soul that is not going away," he said.
The poll results did not surprise most college administrators WGBH News interviewed. Archie Ervin, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, has been watching support for race-conscious admissions fluctuate over the past 40 years.
"I've seen it go from high levels in the '70s and '80s to very low levels more recently in the last decade or so," Ervin said.
Despite efforts to educate the public, he acknowledged, higher education leaders have failed to make the case for race-conscious admissions.
"I think that the public has this conceptualization that's sort of antiquated — that race is a factor that's given a weight and it is finite and maybe even definitive," he said.
That conception, Ervin said, is simply not the way college admissions works at selective schools like Harvard.
Our higher education reports are a collaboration with The Forum for the Future of Higher Education and made possible with support from Lumina Foundation and the Davis Educational Foundation.