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University News

Poll: Most students opposed to use of race in admissions

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2012
This article is part of the series Fall 2012 Student Poll

Just more than 58 percent of students oppose the University’s consideration of race in student admissions decisions, while over 34 percent of students said they supported the policy, according to a recent Herald poll. Of the students who are opposed to the consideration of race, more than half support the consideration of an applicant’s socioeconomic status. Just over a quarter of students oppose the consideration of race, socioeconomic status or any other demographic factor in admission decisions.

Most students said their answers were tied to their beliefs about the University’s race-based affirmative action policy. Currently, the University considers an applicant’s race as a single factor among many – including grades, test scores and extracurricular activities – and does not weigh socioeconomic status in determining whether the applicant should be admitted to Brown. 

The University’s diversity programs “redress historical patterns of exclusion and … foster opportunities to embrace the greatest mix of ideas, opinions, and beliefs so important to the achievement of academic excellence,” according to its webpage on institutional diversity. 

Students who oppose the use of race in admission decisions but support using socioeconomic status as a factor in admission usually said race no longer plays a large enough part in American society to warrant the policy. Many of these students told The Herald they support nurturing a student body with diverse backgrounds, opinions and world views and that using socioeconomic status as an admission criterion would adequately serve this purpose.  

“You can accomplish that same goal (of diversity) through socioeconomic class,” said Heath Mayo ’13, a Herald opinions columnist. 

Proponents of a class-based affirmative action policy said the structural inequalities that exist in today’s society hurt lower-income families. The University should not “be playing a numbers game based on racial numbers,” said Justin Braga ’16, a member of the Brown Republicans. “We should be focused on the merit of one’s application.”

Braga defended the use of class in admissions, because “lower-income families are more likely to have gone to schools that don’t perform as well.” But attending an underperforming school does not disqualify one from getting into Brown, he added. 

“I believe that you should judge someone based on their ability, not necessarily their knowledge base,” said Phil Denys ’15. “They might not have the same knowledge. They definitely could have the same ability.” 

The use of race in admission “discriminates against people of other races that are disadvantaged just as much,” Denys said. Most opponents of racially-based affirmative action who spoke to The Herald agreed with him.

“We’re admitting wealthy minority students as opposed to minority students that really need the help,” Mayo said. 

Supporters of race-based affirmative action disputed the claim that race – separate from the role of socioeconomic class – no longer acts as a barrier to advancement. Bryan Payton ’15 said he thinks “race should be a factor,” because “it is a factor in who is even able to apply to an Ivy League university in the first place.” 

Payton said minority students have fewer opportunities to take Advanced Placement classes, while white students go to “better-prepared and better-funded schools.” 

“Even people of color from middle-class backgrounds are much more likely to have the same poverty rates, or live in neighborhoods that don’t have as good schools,” Payton said. 

Lydia Bennett GS, who was an admissions counselor for Colorado State University for three years, said she has seen firsthand the “very drastic” result of what happens “when race is considered and when race is not.” 

“College admission continues to be a place for structural inequality to have a big influence on who gets in,” Bennett said. She cited SAT and ACT scores, which “measures your socioeconomic status more than your ability to succeed in college” as areas where wealthier, white students have an advantage over their less affluent, minority peers. 

“Affirmative action is not about bringing in unqualified students,” Bennett said. “It’s about making sure the structural inequalities don’t keep out students who would otherwise get in.” 

Supporters of race-based affirmative action often pointed to the University’s preferential treatment of legacy applicants and recruited athletes as real violations of its merit-based admissions process. 

More than 40 percent of athletes oppose the consideration of any demographic factors in the admissions process, compared with 25 percent of the overall student body. 

While not necessarily criticizing this preferential treatment, Payton presented these groups as demographics – like race – that “add a diverse array of perspectives to a University.” 

“(People) like to go off this post-racial idea of this country, and we’re not there,” Payton said. “We’re not there at all.” 

Many students expressed surprise that a majority of their peers opposed the use of race in admissions. “Thinking about Brown as stereotypically liberal, I would think more people would affirm race-based policies,” Mayo said. 

Among the students interviewed for this article, none who opposed the use of both race and socioeconomic status in admissions agreed to go on record with their opinions. 

“It’s an issue a lot of students have gone through themselves, so they’re more knowledgeable on the subject,” Denys said.

Many respondents said affirmative action often suffers from a “not in my backyard” mentality, where support for a liberal cause fades when those liberals supporting the cause are asked to sacrifice. “College admission is something they’ve actually been affected by,” Denys said. 


A student’s view on the use of race in the admission process correlated with their race, according to poll results. Black students, who made up 9.2 percent of poll respondents, supported the use of race most heavily – 60 percent said they agreed with the University’s current policy. 

Slightly more than half of Hispanic students agreed with the use of race in admissions. White students’ opinions reflected the overall student body’s view of the policy, with about a third favoring the use of race. 

Only 16 percent of Asian students said they favored the use of race in admissions decisions – the least of any demographic group. But almost half favored consideration of socioeconomic status instead of race. The percent of Asian
students who oppose the use of both race and socioeconomic status was only slightly higher than average, at 30 percent. 

These demographic breakdowns loosely correlate to affirmative action’s reported effects on each group. A study from the University of California at Los Angeles found that when affirmative action policies were suspended at public universities, admission rates rose for Asian students but fell for white, black and Hispanic students, The Herald reported in 2008.


Written questionnaires were administered to 959 undergraduates Oct. 17-18 in the lobby of J. Walter Wilson and the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center during the day and the Sciences Library at night. The poll has a 2.9 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. The margin of error is 9.0 percent for varsity athletes and 3.1 percent for non-athletes.

Find results of previous polls at


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  1. Wow.

    If you think that race shouldn’t be considered, then you clearly don’t understand how affirmative action works or why it exists. Socioeconomic disparities can count, too, but there are enough race-related issues in this country that white people (among other groups) will usually have an advantage. This is what AA aims to off-set.

    • sumpeople says:

      the civil rights movement is over. college is college. nobody is denied based on the color of their skin. it shouldn’t be handed to people on a silver platter. it is something that should be earned as a result of hard work and study throughout a lifetime of learning. colleges that cater to specific minority groups teach bias and hatred against white people. it needs to stop.

  2. Anonymous 1:
    Any argument to separate people based on race is fundamentally racist. We don’t have separate but equal in this country anymore, and we CERTAINLY don’t have separate and not equal, which is why AA is trying to push. We need to use factors that matter, like actually being disadvantaged rather than factors that don’t, like racially stereotyping African Americans to be disadvantaged.

  3. Harpo Jaeger says:

    Nice try, 9:19. No one’s “racially stereotyping African Americans to be disadvantaged.” You are not the victim of a “separate but equal system.” Go check your privilege and try again. As is made perfectly clear here, “It’s about making sure the structural inequalities don’t keep out students who would otherwise get in.” And if you don’t think Black people in the US face structural inequalities, well, I’m waiting to hear your argument.

  4. Harpo, the argument is not that black students do not face inequality. The argument is that there are plenty of white and Asian students, that have the same structural disadvantages as black students but are disregarded in affirmative action. This inequality is by definition racist.

    Just imagine, when any white Brown student marries a black person, his/her children’s chances to college would increase. When the white student would marry an Asian or another white person, his children’s chances would decrease. This system is insane. My partner’s skin color should have NOTHING to do with the chances of my kids to succeed in life.

    I am sorry, but affirmative action is a morally bankrupt argument!

  5. Okay, let’s put it this way. Society has prejudices, and many of them are based on race. Socioeconomic status contributes to these prejudices, but it does not trump race every time.

    Most minorities face prejudice that whites do not. For example, if they go into a store, they’re more likely to be followed, no matter how educated and wealthy they are. This happens all the time, and it’s a real problem. (full disclosure: I’m white, female, and a STEM concentrator.)

    A comparable example: females are under-represented in many STEM fields, and sometimes women with lower credentials on paper are offered opportunities that more highly qualified men also applied for. It’s not just about “balancing” or “compensating for women,” but also because those women are told time and time again (whether implicitly or explicitly) that they can’t succeed because they’re female, or their professors give more attention to the men in the room because they’ve been primed to do so by a long history of men succeeding in science and being in charge. Without these kinds of initiatives, it’s hard for women to succeed because they will continue to face this kind of prejudice, which can be immensely discouraging.

    But to return to the main argument — what’s really pathetic is that people pretend this doesn’t happen and cry racism whenever they see AA in action. I’m sorry that you feel like you’re getting passed over in favor of someone who is “less qualified,” but it’s not just about socioeconomic status. It’s that some groups get marginalized purely because of their race (or appearance), and if you fail to recognize that, then you really need to get off of College Hill and into the world.

  6. My goal is that by the time I die I want to live in a post-racial America, AA gets in the way of that.

  7. Nobody denies that there is discrimination. The point is that ’13 has a very narrow conception of discrimination. People get discriminated based on their looks, their weight, their height etc. Is there affirmative action for that? Of course not!
    Further, although there is racial bias in certain parts of society, it is ridiculous to assume that every black kid was affected by it. At this point in time, an abused white kid from a trailer park is disadvantaged in admissions compared to a black kid from an intact family, who is going to a fancy private school. IMO it is pathetic to scream”white privilege” every time people want to abolish affirmative action. Tell this millions of Asians and white kids from precarious backgrounds. The false entitlement feeling created by AA sickens me!

  8. Using the logic of giving preferential treatment in the college admissions to (racial) groups who are discriminated against in society, we should then have affirmative action for fat people as well…

  9. Let’s forget race and socioeconomic status for just a second. Take a step back and consider who, out of all the different sects of people we could imagine, really experiences the greatest “structural inequality.” Ugly people. Maybe ugly minorities a bit more than ugly white people, but ugly people just the same. Find me one good looking homeless individual. What are we doing to help them? Sure people will cater to white men more than females or black men, but no one prefers an unattractive person over an attractive one, no matter their class or race. That’s who we should really be helping: Ugly people.

  10. Would it not be in conflict with need-blind policies to use socioeconomic status as a factor in admissions decisions? It is fairly well established that by going need-blind more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have been able to come to Universities like Brown. But unlike being need-blind, being race-blind is practically impossible. If race is not being used as an admission factor, we still cannot assume that it is not being noticed. (Race is visible, folks. Even though it creates no intrinsic differences in human beings, we can see the color of someone’s skin.) A race-blind policy has no way of enforcing that racial discrimination is not happening. We still live in place and time where there is stigma associated with race. This is a shame and far from the way I wish the world were, but without intentionally off-setting discrimination we will continue to perpetuate racial inequality.

  11. “It is fairly well established that by going need-blind more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have been able to come to Universities like Brown.”

    Actually the opposite is true. Need-blind did not change the percentage of Brown students on financial aid. It’s good for public relations, and may help keep low-income applications up, but when you look at enrollment figures, not much has changed. Over half of Brown students pay the whole freight.

  12. I’m really surprised that 58% of Brown students don’t support race-based affirmative action!

    Affirmative action is definitely flawed, but it’s a necessary tool for remediating racial inequality; social science research shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, poor schools, environmental risks, etc. (George Lipsitz’ book Possessive Investment In Whiteness is an awesome place to start for those interested in reading a whole book on racial inequality in the US … during finals period …… or over winter break :)). Race based inequality starts in infancy, and affirmative action in higher education alone is certainly not enough, but it must be part of a comprehensive movement to end race-based inequality at every level of society, from preschool (and before) to workplace and beyond.

    22:02 – I appreciate your points about the prevalence of racial discrimination. In response to your comments about SES-based affirmative action: SES-based and race-based affirmative action need not be mutually exclusive. While research shows that SES-based affirmative action will not create the kind of ethnoracial representativeness possible with race-based affirmative action, both can be instrumental in creating opportunities for social mobility for structurally disadvantaged groups (see Espenshade, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal).

  13. Also – and this comment is not meant to exclude those who disagree with me, but I want to open up another discussion on this comment thread, in addition to the one about whether or not race-based affirmative action is necessary:

    What can we do to help people (Brown students, to start) understand the importance – the necessity – of affirmative action and similar programs to creating racial equality? Brown students are going to go on to be super influential! If students at the “liberal Ivy” don’t support affirmative action, I’m deeply concerned for the future of racial justice in America.

  14. AA is racist. Second, promotiing people into a College program who do not understand math beyond the 7th grade helps no one.

  15. So far the comments have missed one of the most important sentences in this article:

    “Among the students interviewed for this article, none who opposed the use of both race and socioeconomic status in admissions agreed to go on record with their opinions.”

    What a disturbing commentary on the state of discourse in elite universities when students are afraid to express an opinion contrary to that held by university authorities on the record.

  16. When California banned the use of Affirmative Action, the number of blacks in Berkeley and UCLA dropped precipitously, but THE TOTAL NUMBER OF BLACKS IN THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SYSTEM REMAINED THE SAME, and THE GRADUATION RATE OF BLACKS WENT UP. Being in an academically appropriate school matters. This also shows that Affirmative Action admits academically inappropriate students.

  17. When California banned the use of Affirmative Action, the number of blacks in Berkeley and UCLA dropped precipitously, but THE TOTAL NUMBER OF BLACKS IN THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SYSTEM REMAINED THE SAME, and THE GRADUATION RATE OF BLACKS WENT UP. Being in an academically appropriate school matters. This also shows that Affirmative Action admits academically inappropriate students.

  18. We could not have known this if BDH had not covered the story. This piece of journalism is a gem. It can happen only at Brown University.

  19. Unhappy with equality says:

    I am not sure as to how I feel about this issue of race. I do not attend Brown University but I do attend Providence College and I feel that diversity is important, not simply to say “we have 30% african americans attending out university” but to impact the lives of other students. I attend a school where it is notorious for upper-middle class white students, and though I am white myself I find their is a lack of stimulation to worldly issues outside of the Western culture on campus where students do not understand what hardship is as everything is handed down to them. Providence College does not accept poor people or minorities and they manage to find the same Catholic white people from the same school. I am white and secular Catholic but I grew up as a first generation college student in a improverished home so my opportunites were limited. It is not fair that a Spanish person would get an advantage over me. I have been especially thinking about this for graduate school because the Ivy leagues really recruit on that level as I guess as statistics go not enough minorities make it to grad school. But it just is not fair to white people who are also disadvantaged.

    Did anyone see the video on youtube of the teenager from Sierra Leone visiting MIT? He created a battery out of garbage in his village where electricity virtually does not exist. Now that is someone amazing and racially fitting the guidelines of a fair advantage to get into an ivy league.

    I do not believe that people of a different race should have a better advantage, I think circumstances should count though and someone who has lower SAT scores but is of hispanic race SHOULD NOT get into a school like Brown just because they are spanish. Then again when has life really ever been fair?

    What bothers me the most is when people say WHITE PEOPLE. How do you define white people? There are poor white people, so not every white person has an advantage. Furthermore if we really want to get to get precise with this is was always the WASP that rose to prominence in universities regarldess in America. If you were not of anglo saxon descent you were discriminated upon. The Italians and Irish were treated unfairly and they were white. Sacco and Venzetti were given an unfair trial because they were of Italian descent and associated with communism. In reality I do not understand why Spanish people garner much sympathy, they did not endure slavery in America, they just live in semi underdelvoped countries. Yet you could argue that the Chinese also come from a developing country, yet they maintain equal success with their given opportunities where in fact, most chinese immigrant parents are not educated. I think it is more a reflection on the specific culture. Every. race has been opressed in some way besides the English and French

    These are my ranting thoughts at 4 in the morning but in sum, it is vital to have minorities who are QUALIFIED to equally be there as their peers. Or you will get schools like PC who try to admit minorities but when they do they get people who are exceptionally lower standards and give them full scholarships while you don’t get that. I graduated in the top of my class, denied from Ivy Leagues and wound up at PC where there are minorities getting full scholarships living for free while I commute to school and can’t even afford a car so I take the bus meanwhile maintaining near perfect grades. In my opinion, it is just not fair how minorities are getting all these advantages in admissions and then they take adantage of it.

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