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Affirmative Action Worldwide: Its development and future

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Defined as a set of policies aimed at levelling the playing field for members of disadvantaged communities, affirmative action has been a hot topic in recent years, especially in the US, drawing attention from political and racial issues commentators across the political aisle. In general, the arguments revolve around the main issue that affirmative action at once tries to tackle and arguably also perpetuates: favoritism in the selection for universities. For some, affirmative action, especially in the form of quotas or awarding of benefits, is a necessary tool to give everyone a fair shot at making into elite universities, while for others it creates unequal standards that dampen attempts at a true meritocracy.

History and Current Relevance

The first affirmative action is surprisingly not found in the United States but rather in India, dating back to the 1950s and aimed at combating the entrenched caste system present in the country. However, the modern affirmative action system was first observed in the US in 1978. Following its first appearance, it has been under attack from numerous sources, leading to an eventual ruling by the Supreme Court of the US which claimed that individual states could decide whether to ban affirmative action policies. That ruling led to a number of states, largely in the South but also including New Hampshire and California, to introduce bans on affirmative action. The limit was then partially walked back when a new ruling stated that a state ban on a specific affirmative action policy was unconstitutional.

      Across the world, affirmative action programs are present in one way or another in about ¼ of the world’s countries, with a higher frequency in diverse countries such as Brazil. Interestingly, whereas in past years the focus was largely on race and ethnicity, developments in various policies have allowed them to include gender as well, among other determinants of inequality.

      These policies have become even more relevant today due to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is focused on ensuring equitable education to every child by 2030. Affirmative action has already been recognized as a key tool to achieve this goal, with the aim of reaching the largest number of members of especially underrepresented communities and groups.

Data from the World Bank
Data from the World Bank

Social Response, A Focus on the US

      The US is one of the countries with the highest number of affirmative action policies, both publicly through legislation that allows minorities to access grants and loans more easily, and privately, with major universities constantly pushing for more inclusive recruitment and selection policies. Universities have marketed these choices as a crucial step in the attempt to create truly diverse campuses. In general, there is a sentiment that more diversity is more attractive to prospective students, so much so that data on the number of racial minorities and countries represented is often displayed at the front of their prospectuses or recruitment brochures (see this link for Harvard’s most recent admission statistics, with ‘white’ or ‘caucasian’ not even mentioned in the ethnic breakdown of admitted students).

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      Interestingly, the public seems to largely favor affirmative action, with 63% of American adults believing that those policies are positive. However, those numbers deserve a closer look: when broken down by race, it becomes evident that the number is heavily driven by Black (84% of whom are in favor) and Hispanic adults (80%) in favor. Naturally, the growing minority population is starting to have a louder voice when it comes to supporting these policies, but the stark divide in preference among whites and minorities may be a valid explanation for the stuttering progress affirmative action has had in the past.

      Another interesting piece of data is the percentage of American adults that believe race should be a factor in determining admission: 73% claim it should not, 19% claim it should be a minor factor while 7% believe it should be a major factor. Once again, the minority divide is clear, with blacks having a 62:20:18 split and Asians instead splitting 58:29:13. Once again, these numbers are up to interpretation, with a key question being whether respondents are considering the idea of having race as a factor as a positive consideration or a negative one. It is likely that white respondents would not push for race being a major factor thinking about affirmative action policies. Minorities, on the other hand, would rather be more focused on the aspects of discrimination in the recruitment process, thus advocating for it not to be a factor only insofar as not allowing for discrimination when evaluating students of color.

Somewhat surprisingly, race ranks penultimate in the list of factors that should be considered when evaluating a student’s college application, beating only gender. While it may seem counterintuitive for these two ‘discriminators’ being the two main aspects that affirmative action policies focus on, the data tells a different tale. A paper by Bertrand and Mullainathan published in 2004 in the American Economic Review and reporting an experiment carried out in Chicago and Boston proved that there is a 50 percent gap in the percent callback between white and black names. To put it plainly, a resume with a white sounding name is 50% more likely to be called back to an interview than one with a black name. This implicit bias proves the incongruence between the perception of what should be considered and what is actually being considered, thus calling for an imposition of quotas to ensure that gender and race truly do not play a part in college admissions. Thus, even just based on public desire, affirmative action seems to be a necessary and appropriate tool.

Overall trends are showing an increase in the percentage of minority students in many American universities but the numbers are still disproportionate when compared to the country’s demographic splits. In the same way, women worldwide have been increasingly successful in achieving secondary, and beyond, level education. In fact, some countries seem to show that women are even more prone than men to achieve such a level of education. However, the numbers may be subject to a selection bias whereby men simply choose to not continue their path in education, while women, even when choosing to pursue a further degree, may be limited in their goals and aspirations. 

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The Future of Affirmative Action

      Beyond the needs and public images of universities as well, affirmative action policies are also crucial to many minorities in order to have a fair shot at entering university. In fact, an estimate by Professors Blume and Long, at the University of Washington, claims that students of color could see a 23-percentage point decline in likelihood of admission to highly selective public colleges if the ban on affirmative action policies held.

      Most crucially, affirmative action is necessary to break the vicious cycle of poverty and limited social mobility that is currently present worldwide. It has become evident that quotas and affirmative action in general cannot be a long term solution to the issues of underrepresentation, poverty and social inertia, but it is certainly a way of empowering individuals such that they can empower themselves. Simply, giving education to members of an underrepresented and underperforming community, can allow them to not only individually gain a chance at breaking their own familial cycle of poverty and difficulty, but also to bring more attention to the issues of the community itself and offer a liaison between that community and the broader working world.

      On a broader scale, a lack of social mobility can be a severe opportunity cost to a country’s economy. In fact, according to a World Economic Forum estimate, the US could lose over $866 billion in cumulative additional GDP growth if the economy persists in its entrenched nature. Other diverse countries such as India and Brazil face equally daunting figures ($428 billion and $145 billion respectively). Breaking the cycle can thus not just be seen as an ethical responsibility but also as an economic opportunity.

      The question of whether it is the best tool to use remains. Idealists will, and do, maintain that quotas should be abolished and should be met, instead, in a natural fashion, by educating key decision-makers along the college recruitment process. The problem with this approach is that bias, today, tends to be a lot more implicit than explicit, with people not even realizing they are selecting based on a prejudice that they did not even know they had. Affirmative action can actually serve as a key steppingstone on the path to achieving the desirable situation of not having to impose quotas anymore. Exposure theory argues that with a higher degree of interaction with various minority groups, people are more likely to be able to see past their own bias and thus judge others individually, and not solely depending on the community to which they belong. Of course, the counterargument is the backlash that such policies could create. It is undeniable that animosity, even if kept largely under wraps, is growing among many whites in the United States and other majority groups around the world. In a way, the racism that might have been present before in favor of them, is now turning against them, with other, potentially less-qualified candidates being preferred simply to meet quotas.

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Yet, however unfortunate and difficult this may be for whites, males or other majority groups in certain countries, it is a necessary step on our road to equity in education and thus the achievement of SDG4. Although it is difficult to substantiate with data, affirmative action is widely accepted as the most successful policy in trying to achieve that equality and, barring any new and creative ideas, it will continue being the most successful until 2030 and beyond. In short, affirmative action must be kept in place in order to ensure all students have a fair chance of admission to competitive universities, with the main goal of eventually reaching a society where such quotas are no longer necessary.


Moses, Michele S., and Laura Dudley Jenkins. “Affirmative Action around the World.” The Conversation, 24 Mar. 2021, theconversation.com/affirmative-action-around-the-world-82190. 

DeSilver, Drew. “Supreme Court Says States Can Ban Affirmative Action; 8 Already Have.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 27 Aug. 2020, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/22/supreme

DeSilver, Drew. “Supreme Court Says States Can Ban Affirmative Action; 8 Already Have.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 27 Aug. 2020, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/22/supreme-court-says-states-can-ban-affirmative-action-8-already-have/. 

 Moses, Michele S., and Laura Dudley Jenkins. “Affirmative Action around the World.” The Conversation, 24 Mar. 2021, theconversation.com/affirmative-actio-court-says-states-can-ban-affirmative-action-8-already-have/. n-around-the-world-82190.

Drake, Bruce. “Public Strongly Backs Affirmative Action Programs on Campus.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/22/public-strongly-backs-affirmative-action-programs-on-campus/. 

Drake, Bruce. “Public Strongly Backs Affirmative Action Programs on Campus.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/22/public-strongly-backs-affirmative-action-programs-on-campus/. 

Bertrand, Marianne, and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” The American Economic Review, vol. 94, no. 4, 2004, pp. 991–1013. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3592802. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021. 

Blume, Grant H., and Mark C. Long. “Changes in Levels of Affirmative Action in College Admissions in Response to Statewide Bans and Judicial Rulings.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 36, no. 2, June 2014, pp. 228–252.

Geiger, Thierry, et al. World Economic Forum, 2020, The Global Social Mobility Report 2020, www3.weforum.org/docs/Global_Social_Mobility_Report.pdf. 

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I am a second year student in BIG and joined Tra i Leoni at the end of my first year. I am passionate about policy, economics, sports and travel as well as everything that happens on campus.

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