Do Colleges Have Quotas Based on Race?

In light of the cases filed in the Supreme Court against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill by the Students for Fair Admission regarding the race factor in admissions, it’s a relevant question! These cases highlight the fairness with which highly selective universities use race considerations in pursuing student diversity. 

And, yes, many colleges and universities across the nation have a racial quota! Here are a few more things you should know about the matter.

college quotas based on race

Quick Jumps!

What is a racial quota?

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While race may not be foremost in the minds of many college applicants, it plays a significant role during the admissions process because of the racial quota. As part of affirmative action, colleges and universities strive to meet their respective racial quota in relation to student diversity, ethnicity-wise, on their campuses. 

At its basic level, racial quotas in the education sector are a delicate balancing act. Note that a racial quota reserves a specific number of slots for admission for minority students. 

On one hand, these are intended to allow students from underrepresented minorities to enjoy the benefits of higher education. On the other hand, these are also designed to establish representation for all. 

The reality on the ground is less than ideal, however, many colleges and universities have an “unbalanced number” of students from different races. Many institutions are also using their racial quotas in accepting students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. 

Emphasis must be made, however, that colleges and universities with proactive affirmative action policies use a wide range of factors in their admission decisions. These factors include academic performance, athletic performance and potential, and community service, as well as possible contributions to university life. 

The race factor is applied to open doors of opportunities to traditionally underrepresented cohorts, such as Black students. There is a fierce debate about it, nonetheless! Supporters assert its importance for diversity and opponents say that its use is a form of discrimination. 

What’s the Supreme Court’s current opinion on racial quotas? 

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While the Supreme Court has ruled that racial quotas are unconstitutional, the court has also said that colleges and universities may consider the race of applicants provided it’s one of several factors used in the admission decision. 

Furthermore, the race of students may be deemed a “plus factor” that will give them a competitive edge in admission but it must not be the “defining factor”. Race considerations should be made in a “narrowly tailored” manner in addition to the absence of a race-neutral approach to meeting student diversity-related goals. 

But with the Students for Fair Admission lawsuit, colleges and universities may or may not be required to reconsider their racial quotas, if any. The lawsuit wants institutions of higher education to ban race considerations and require them to use other means of ensuring ethnic diversity in their student bodies. 

Do all colleges and universities have racial quotas or use race considerations in their admission decisions?  

No. In fact, eight states have laws that ban race considerations and racial quotas in university admissions, namely: 

  • Arizona 
  • California 
  • Florida 
  • Michigan 
  • Nebraska 
  • New Hampshire 
  • Oklahoma 
  • Washington 

The University of California System, for example, has a long-standing policy against the use of racial and gender quotas in their admission and employment decisions. 

How do colleges and universities consider race in their admission decisions and by how much? 

While many four-year institutions take race into account, prospective students must be aware that it’s just one of many factors considered in a holistic admission process. The University of Maryland, for example, has 26 review factors and a brief description of its admission process – and race and ethnicity are listed. 

But these two factors are listed near the end, perhaps an indication of their lesser impact on the admission decision. High school achievement, progression of performance, and breadth of life experiences are listed first. These factors are also applied based on each applicant’s unique circumstances – or flexibly applied, as UMD says it. 

Harvard University has a “tip system” that consists of plus factors that can make or break an applicant’s chances of admission. The awarding of tips is based on several factors including exceptional intellectual ability, leadership capacity, and legacy status, among others. 

UNC-Chapel Hill considers several factors in its admission decisions – race isn’t mentioned on its undergraduate admissions page. Desirable traits include intellect, curiosity, creativity, leadership, perseverance, and diversity. Applicants are also evaluated based on their academic performance, progression, and potential as well as the potential for university involvement.  

What can you do in case of possible racial discrimination? 

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Ultimately, each institution has its specific policies and practices when it comes to admission decisions. You, a prospective student, must do your research so you can tailor your application packet accordingly. 

While your race may be a factor in the admission process, it isn’t the only factor being considered. You must present your academic performance and progression in a way that highlights your suitability for whatever program you’re applying for. This also applies to other aspects of your application, such as your letters of recommendation, personal statements, and resume. 

If you believe that your application for university admission was rejected based on race, you may want to consider legal action. The US Department of Education recommends effective steps in filing a discrimination complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. 

But before filing a legal complaint, you may also want to consider talking to an admission officer first. Your application packet may have been missing certain documents or missing the X factor, so to speak. You may be able to rectify the mistakes or make your next application packet better. 


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