How selective colleges make admissions decisions has come under significant scrutiny, with a discrimination lawsuit against Harvard University pending in Boston.

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that colleges can use race as one factor when deciding which applicants to admit, but a new WGBH News/Abt Associates poll finds that nearly 72 percent disagree with the rulings, even though a majority — or 70 percent of respondents — believe colleges should base admission decisions on a variety of factors. Conversely, only 27 percent say admission decisions should be based solely on grades and placement exams.

The poll of 1,002 adults, which was conducted from Aug. 21-25, 2018 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percent, also finds that large majorities of both whites and non-whites agree colleges and universities should not take race into account when making admissions decisions. Seventy-two percent of both groups disagree with the Supreme Court's rulings.

The issue has drawn renewed attention because of a federal lawsuit filed in 2014 by the group Students for Fair Admissions, which claims that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants. At issue is whether the Harvard can consider race in its admissions and whether the process systematically gives Asian-Americans lower scores for intangible attributes like leadership and courage, as students for fair admissions alleges. The Justice Department supports the suit, which is scheduled to go to trial next month before US District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs.

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Emily Judem WGBH News

Looking across all demographic groups, there are only small pockets of agreement with the Supreme Court’s decisions allowing race as one factor in admissions. College graduates, for example, are more than twice as likely as non-college grads — 40 percent vs. 17 percent — to agree. Additionally, nearly half of Americans with post-graduate degrees agree. It is the only subgroup where agreement is greater than disagreement, 49 percent vs. 45 percent. And, more Democrats than Republicans support the practice by a margin of nearly two to one, 37 percent to 16 percent, respectively.

Despite this finding, an overwhelming majority — or 86 percent — of Americans say it’s at least somewhat important for colleges to have a diverse student body, in terms of race and ethnicity. While there is widespread general agreement on the issue, there are generational differences in relative importance. More than four-in-10 under age 50 agree diversity is “extremely important,” compared to just 23 percent of those 65 or older.

Additionally, 45 percent of college graduates feel having a diverse student body is extremely important, while just 34 percent of non-grads feel the same way. Even larger gaps can be seen between non-whites and whites (48 percent vs. 32 percent) and Democrats and Republicans (51 percent vs. 25 percent).

David Ciemnecki is a senior analyst at Abt Associates. For more on the poll's methodology, click here.

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.