The Trump administration may or may not be preparing a legal assault against college affirmative action policies. But in case lawsuits do start flying, here's a piece of context that's worth keeping in mind: Outside the very top tiers of higher education, race-based admissions have largely disappeared already.
That was the finding from a recent working paper by sociologists Daniel Hirschman of Brown and Ellen Berry of the University of Toronto, which quantified the decline of affirmative action on America's campuses over the last two decades. In 1994, they found, about 60 percent of selective colleges—schools that reject at least 15 percent of their applicants—publicly stated that they considered race in their admissions process. By 2014, that number was down to the 35 percent.
The vast majority of that drop occurred at lower-ranking schools. Among the 63 institutions deemed “most competitive” by Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, 93 percent considered race in 1994. Two decades later, that mark had barely slipped, inching down to 88 percent. By comparison, at the 587 colleges Barron's considered merely “competitive,” the number using affirmative action dropped from 46 percent to 18 percent.
In other words, affirmative action went from a being common policy across all sorts of campuses to more of a niche practice particular to brand-name, wealthy colleges.
Here's another way to put those numbers in perspective. There are around 4,700 two- and four-year colleges in America, but only 1,000 or so schools reject a meaningful number of applicants each year. Of those, just 352 claimed to consider race in admissions by 2014 according to Hirschman and Berry—and 124 of them fell into Barrons' two most prestigious categories. There were only 158 schools in those categories, so most prestigious schools considered race in admissions.
But in total, those two tiers of colleges are responsible for educating just 6 percent of America's undergrads.
This isn't to minimize how important the debate over affirmative action is. Quite the contrary. Top colleges are gate-keepers for elite institutions, stepping stones into politics, finance, Silicon Valley, T14 law schools, the media, and beyond. Harvard and Stanford's admissions policies play a not-insignificant role in determining who gets to run the country one day. By extending black and Hispanic students extra consideration, they're giving them a necessary boost into those worlds. You might assume that smart, driven kids will succeed no matter where they go to college, but economists have shown that attending a prestigious school is especially beneficial for minorities and first-generation students, possibly because it helps them develop professional networks their families lack.
We also know that when schools end affirmative action, black and Hispanic enrollment tends to drop. After California banned schools from considering race, for instance, minority admission rates at its top state universities plummeted 50 to 60 percent; at U.C. Berkeley, black and Hispanic students fell from 22 percent to 12 percent of the freshman class.
In contrast, it's not clear how much white students have at stake in the affirmative action debate other than symbolic satisfaction. To be sure, at least a few lose spots at top colleges to minority applicants with lower test scores or grades (of course, many also lose spots to legacies and other unexceptional students with wealthy parents who donate or pay full freight). But if they lose a spot at one insitution, there's still a strong chance they'll be accepted to another similar school. And at many top colleges, such as Berkeley or the University of Texas at Austin, the main beneficiaries of race-blind policies have been Asian students. If affirmative action were ever finally ended for good, the face of America's elite professional class might not become that much more white. But it would be even less black and brown.