A Real Talk Primer on Affirmative Action, Fisher, College Admissions and Race by Dr. OiYan Poon

The fight over affirmative action, racial justice, and equity in college access is being waged in the legal system and in public discourse. In these debates, colorblind racists are confusing civil rights with colorblindness and a policy agenda that ignores racial disparities and social injustices. This confusion can bewilder well-intentioned people, even social justice educators, into thinking that including race as one factor in college admissions is a bad idea. This confusion can prevent social justice educators from engaging in real talk informed by facts about selective college admissions, race, and affirmative action.

With the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision in Fisher vs. University of Texas expected to be delivered soon, folks on campuses and in the general public will be talking and asking questions about affirmative action and admissions. Ready or not, social justice educators must be prepared to proactively respond to questions presented by students, colleagues, friends, and family.

I prefer that we all be ready! So, I present to you an early holiday gift – a real talk primer on affirmative action, selective school admissions, test scores, and the myths that fester, pester, and persist.

Let me break down three mythsI’ve heard over the last decade from high school, college, and graduate students, news reporters, political pundits, politicians, colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers I’ve encountered via Facebook and other social media.

Myth #1: Affirmative action is about racial quotas.

Whenever I start a class conversation about affirmative action, I ask students, “What have you heard about affirmative action?” Then I take a deep breath (trying not to let my stink eye be so obvious) as students tell me that affirmative action means:

  • Racial quotas, and
  • Unfair racial preferences.


Quotas as an approach to admissions died with Bakke vs. University of California in 1978. As I point out to students, that’s before all of them were born! The SCOTUS decision in Bakke declared the use of quotas unconstitutional in college admissions. However, the decision also affirmed that colleges and universities could continue using race as one of many factors in their selection processes. This “diversity rationale” would later be reaffirmed in the 2003 SCOTUS Grutter vs. Bollinger ruling. For more on the diversity rationale and affirmative action, check out these three Colorlines pieces.

Affirmative action in selective college admissions means that race cannot be THE determinative factor in admissions decisions, but it can be one of many factors in evaluating what a prospective student might contribute to a campus environment. Until SCOTUS rules otherwise, this is the law of the land.

You might ask — what are some of the other factors that are considered in admissions processes? Here is a list of factors some institutions consider, depending on their educational mission and institutional goals:

  • Child of an alumnus/alumna and/or donor
  • Geographic location of home community and high school
  • Special talents (e.g. athletic, musical, intellectual, etc.) that can contribute toward institutional priorities
  • Participation in academic preparation programs (e.g. Upward Bound, Talent Search, etc.)
  • Test scores
  • High school GPA

This is not an exhaustive list. For example, the University of California considers 14 criteria for undergraduate admissions.

Myth #2: Schools that practice affirmative action let in less qualified students of color over more qualified white students.

It boggles my mind when people think that schools admit anyone who isn’t a white male, without key qualifications, because of affirmative action. It’s equally baffling that some think there’s an “advantage” or even “racial privilege” in being Black, Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander or Southeast Asian American in getting into a selective college or university.


Being an under-represented minority (URM) applicant is not a racial privilege or advantage in the context of college access. In the U.S. educational pipeline, URMs are much more likely than their peers to attend under-resourced K-12 schools, due to persistent racial segregation. Let’s be real, racial segregation and unequal schooling didn’t go away with Brown vs. Board of Education! And attending an under-resourced school significantly limits one’s college opportunities.

Now let me reiterate, because it cannot be stated enough. As it currently stands, affirmative action means that college admissions processes include a range of criteria, and race cannot be a decisive factor. Regardless of racial identity, an applicant must demonstrate potential for success at a given institution; otherwise, the applicant will simply not be admitted.

Wordcloud of words associated with the Fisher caseThis brings me to Abigail Fisher and her white entitlement lawsuit. Evette Dionne put it best in her letter to Fisher, “You were not accepted into the University of Texas at Austin because… You were not qualified. But of course because African-American students were chosen for admittance and you were not, it must be reverse racism in the form of affirmative action.”

How do we know Abigail was not qualified? The University of Texas filed a brief noting that in 2008 the average SAT score for admitted students, who were not ranked in the top 10% of their high school graduating class, was 1285 out of 1600. Not only did Fisher not rank in the top 10% of her high school class, her academic profile was pretty mediocre with an 1180 SAT and 3.59 cumulative GPA. Exactly 47 applicants with lower SAT scores were admitted that year, and 42 of them were white. There were also 168 Black and Latino applicants with higher academic scores than Fisher who were also rejected by the University of Texas.

Fisher wasn’t admitted at UT because she wasn’t qualified, not because she is white. However, her white privilege and entitled attitude somehow allows her lawsuit to reach the Supreme Court.

Myth #3: Applicants with perfect test scores (SAT, ACT, GRE, etc.) have demonstrated strong “academic merit,” and should always be admitted to any school they apply to.

So then why did UT Austin admit 47 applicants with lower SAT scores than Abigail Fisher into their 2008 freshman class? Why didn’t the 168 Black and Latino applicants with higher scores than Fisher get admitted that year? What about students with perfect SAT scores that still get rejected by Harvard, Princeton, and Yale?


Test scores are not strong measurements of academic merit. Research shows that SAT scores only reliably predict about 5% of the variability in freshman year college GPA. Plus, class inequalities allow economically privileged students to take advantage of expensive test prep classes to score higher on their SATs. The SAT has also been shown to be riddled with racial and cultural biases. This means that test scores are limited in what they can tell you about any given applicant.

It’s no wonder a growing list of colleges and universities have eliminated the use of test scores or made them optional in their undergraduate admissions processes.

At schools that continue utilizing tests, applicant scores are just one of many factors in the mixed method approach of evaluating college applicants and what they can bring to a campus learning environment. Some selective institutions could technically fill multiple classes with perfect test score applicants. However, I’m guessing that these schools want students and future alumni who have talents and skills beyond being good at multiple-choice tests.

Test scores should never be the ultimate admissions criterion given their limitations.

The Bottom Line: What is “merit”?

This is the question at the heart of selective college admissions.

The answer is, “It depends.” There are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. Each one is characterized by unique missions and values. Solid admissions evaluation plans start with an institution’s leaders, faculty and administrators deciding how their values will translate into selecting students.

Schools that value academics, diversity, and important principles like social justice and leadership must use diverse combinations of evaluation methods to gauge what students can bring to a campus community.

Headshot of OiYan Poonon

OiYan Poon is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Loyola University Chicago and a fellow at the Asian American and Pacific Islander Research Coalition (ARC). Her research interests include college access and admissions, Asian Americans in education, and community-based research methodology. A daughter of immigrants and community organizer, OiYan is passionate about combating inequalities in education through community empowerment for social justice. She was the first Asian Pacific American Student Affairs director at George Mason University and the first Student Affairs Officer in Asian American Studies at UC Davis, where she also served as a comprehensive review reader for undergraduate admissions. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Boston College, her M.Ed. in College Student Affairs Administration from The University of Georgia, and a Ph.D. in Education with a certificate in Asian American studies from UCLA. Her work with the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association in New Orleans (www.vayla-no.org) was supported with a postdoctoral fellowship from the UCLA Institute for American Cultures. She was is also a 2004 alumna of the Social Justice Training Institute (www.sjti.org). In May 2013, she will be a keynote speaker at NCORE (http://www.ncore.ou.edu/).

You can follow Dr. Poon on Twitter @spamfriedrice and visit her blog at http://criticalaapieducation.tumblr.com/.