Blog #1 – Affirmation Action in Higher Education – Benefits and Stigma

For our second lecture in the Diversity and Inclusion for a Global Society class, we read and discussed an article by Peggy McIntosh titled “White Privilege – Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. The article noted how being “white” opens many doors for whites and made them confident, comfortable and oblivious while other racial groups were likely experiencing the opposite. In addition, it outlined a long list of privileges that are often unrecognized or unacknowledged by whites. Among the long lists was a statement about the effect or consequence of affirmative action for racial minorities. The statement reads: “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race”. While the statement is about the stigma that results from affirmative action in work place, it reminds me of the stigma that minority students enrolled in colleges with affirmative action policies also face because of their race. Although we often think of affirmative action as something positive for racial minorities, studies have shown that it can have negative effects (stigmas) on them. In this blog, I will discuss the definition, benefits and stigmas of affirmative action, and ways in which institutions can combat the stigmas.

 Formal theory or scholarship

What is Affirmative Action?

Wikipedia describes affirmative action as “policies that support members of a disadvantaged group that has previously suffered discrimination (and may continue to) in such areas as education, employment, or housing.” The aim of affirmative action in higher education is to increase access to college education for historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups by demolishing the wall of segregation that excluded them in the past, and to promote racial and gender diversity. However, critics believe it is unfair and results in reverse discrimination. While access to higher education and students’ diversity have improved in recent decades, racial minorities and women continue to face discrimination or stigmatization that affect their performance in college (Fischer & Massey, 2007).

How does affirmative action benefit minority students and college campuses?

Affirmative action has been under threat during the Trump’s administration. The administration believes that affirmative action is reverse discrimination that provides minority students with privileges and better opportunities at the expense of students of other races. While the administration seeks to ban affirmative action in higher education, majority of adult Americans (60 percent) favor affirmative action programs for racial minorities (Gallup Poll, 2016). Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the programs. The reason majority of American favor affirmative action programs and the Supreme Court has allowed colleges to continue to use affirmative action policies is because of the benefits it provides to minority students and college campuses.

An Harvard article on “The Case for Affirmative Action” reported that minority students who benefits from affirmative action eventually succeed more than their peers who attended lower ranking universities. These students had a higher chance of graduating, earning a professional degree and higher incomes.

In addition to benefiting underrepresented students, affirmative action promotes diversity which enhances the college experiences of students of all backgrounds. A recent study by Century Foundation suggests that racially diverse schools can help reduce students’ racial bias, improve their leadership skills, satisfaction and intellectual self-confidence. Also, racially diverse and integrated schools promote equitable access to resources, educate students that are more productive, more effective, and more creative team players who are better equipped to succeed in a global economy.

Considering the benefits diverse college environment provides for all students, affirmative action polices should be promoted and supported and not banned.

What are the stigmas of affirmative action?

While affirmative action provides many benefits, if the programs are not effectively managed, it can result in stigmas that negatively affect the very students they are supposed to help. Critics of affirmative actions have often argued that it stigmatizes all minority students as incompetent or unqualified resulting in discouragement and underperformance irrespective of individual qualifications. (Fischer & Massey, 2007). They also argue that affirmative action sets up beneficiaries for failure by placing them in highly selective universities where their skills do not match the required abilities to succeed.

However, recent evidence by Fischer & Massey (2007) does not support the later argument of students’ mismatch.  In their study of some selective colleges and universities in the U.S., they reported that the performance of minority students (who benefited from affirmative action policies) with lower SAT scores than institutional averages were not poorer than the performance of other students. In addition, the found that minority students who benefited from affirmative action in institutions with less intensive use of the program performed better academically and dropped out of college at lower rates than other students.

While there was no support for underperformance by students benefiting from affirmative action at the institutions studied, they found support that stigmatization of minority students affected their academic performance and well being. The negative consequences of affirmative action increased with college year for the minority students with their academic performance decreasing after their first year in college. Affirmative action creates a perception that minority students are admitted to colleges due to their demographics rather than qualifications. As a result, other students view minority students in institutions with affirmative action programs as unqualified and incompetent, and this view causes these minority students to doubt their self-competence which likely results in poor academic performance (Leslie et al., 2014).

Missing components that needs to be addressed about the stigma of affirmative action

Affirmative action policies in higher education have increased diversity but often creating stigma for the students that they are designed to assist. Reports on the consequences of affirmative action have often focused on the effect of stigmatization, but have largely ignored ways to eliminate stigmatization of minority students and the consequent underperformance. In addition, more reports have focused on eliminating stigmatization of minorities in workplace. Therefore, there is the need for more research to be done on eliminating this problem among college students.

To tackle the stigma of affirmative action, institutions of higher education should emphasize the qualification of students and the benefits of diverse and integrated college environment. Emphasis on the qualification of students and the benefits of a diverse and inclusive school will help reduce the perceptions that affirmative action and other diversity and inclusion initiatives results in reverse discrimination. Students admitted into colleges with affirmative action policies should be reminded that they were admitted for their qualifications. This will prevent students from doubting their abilities.

Colleges should also make their admission process more transparent. This will allow people to recognize that underrepresented students are selected based on their qualification and not just because of their race. Implementation of affirmative action plan should be followed through with steps to prevent the unintended consequence of stigmatization.

In addition, students should not just be admitted to colleges, they should be supported all through. Increasing employment and retention of minority faculty and staff who can provide mentorship for minority students can also reduce the stigma of affirmative action policies.

Future consideration

Future studies on the effect of affirmative action on higher education should examine how the diversity of faculty and staff in higher education impacts minority students’ experiences in institution with affirmative action policies. Questions to address may include: will minority students in colleges with more diverse faculty and staff experience less stigma of affirmative action? How will they perform academically compared to minority students in colleges with less diverse faculty and staff?


Leslie, L. M., Mayer, D. M., & Kravitz, D. A. (2014). The stigma of affirmative action: A stereotyping-based theory and meta-analytic test of the consequences for performance. Academy of Management Journal57(4), 964-989.

Fischer, M. J., & Massey, D. S. (2007). The effects of affirmative action in higher education. Social Science Research36(2), 531-549.



9 Replies to “Blog #1 – Affirmation Action in Higher Education – Benefits and Stigma”

  1. Affirmative action has been something that I battled with for a while now.

    I went to 2 HBCUs where we did not have a legacy of exclusion and discrimination. HBCUs have always been open to not only hiring white faculty but also accepting white students. They have played an extremely important role in the lives of many blacks and even some Jewish people when they needed to seek refuge during the 1950s. For the most part, they have felt diversity has strengthened these institutions by exposing Whites, Latinos, Asians, etc. to black culture while providing opportunities for mutual learning and respect.

    PWIs (Predominately White Institutions ) are slowly beginning to embrace this idea by becoming more inclusive to others and encouraging all students to embrace these new ideas. It is apart of these universities’ accreditation requirements to diversify. For example, in 2017, The University of Missouri School of Medicine had two years to diversify or they would lose accreditation. That is including their faculty and students. The reason most students didn’t want to go to university “was that some students had been mistaken for janitors, they get singled out of ID checks by campus security and they had to deal with racial remarks from physicians about patients of color.” ( This is not MU’s first or second occurrence nor is it the only university that has been cited on these charges.

    To circle back as to why I battle internally with affirmative action is this. I as an underrepresented minority do not want to be counted as just another number/ check a few boxes. Unfortunately, that is the case for a lot of these universities. We get brought in thinking affirmative action is going to help us, but in reality, we fall through the cracks and don’t get the assistance we may need to navigate through. When we walk into a classroom we are normally the only one (maybe 2 or 3 more) and the professor normally ignores us throughout the entire class to dote on his/her “select favorites”. We rarely see a faculty member that looks like us and we get a sense of not “belonging”. I do believe affirmative action helps by getting our foot in the door for these major universities, but I do believe they fail in keeping us here and if they do “push us along” it is just to meet a quota. Affirmative action also fails in hiring underrepresented minorities in terms of faculty. In the APSC department, there are 2 black faculty and to my knowledge, only one of them teaches classes. I believe that has a major impact on a student. If they cannot see themselves in the faculty or a job, how are they going to continue to be motivated to become a better them?

  2. I love this blog! I think you are so right about the things we as a university need to do for underrepresented students such as reminding them they got in for their qualifications, supporting them all the way, and having more diverse faculty/staff. I think many universities use affirmative action to increase their URM numbers which in itself is a good thing so that students don’t feel like “the only one” but I also think it needs to go deeper and start from the top down! Last year, I went to a talk where the keynote speaker was an Asian American woman in an engineering field. She talked about her struggles not only as a woman but as an Asian American in a predominately white male department. She was constantly upset that she was the only person like herself not only within her department but at her university as well! She eventually managed become department head of that same department she started at. She talked about how it wasn’t easy but after she became department head she pushed to hire other URM faculty under her. As soon as she started doing that her department took a completely different look and they also started getting more URM students come as well because they saw faculty like themselves there. While I applaud universities for trying to increase URM student enrollment, I also think that if we start from the top down that it will happen on it’s own and ignorant people will perhaps be less “you check that box” or “you only got here because of…”

  3. This was a great post and immediately caught my attention! Coming from a small town in Southwest Virginia on the outskirts of Roanoke, there was not a lot of diversity in my high school which can often stifle open thinking due to decreased contact with more people from different backgrounds. Affirmative action was a hot topic during our junior and senior years in high school as most were applying to different colleges/universities. Neither guidance counselors nor teachers brought up this topic instead just ill informed students talked about it. I heard my peers say those negative comments you wrote about in your post about how ‘unqualified’ people were getting offers that were taking away their chances of getting in. Like we’ve talked about before in class and you have mentioned in this post, starting open communication and education about topics like this at a young age is imperative when fighting stigmas. I think back if our teachers and mentors had just been open about why affirmative action was started, how it helps not just minority groups but everyone involved, and how those who benefit from affirmative action actually have lower dropout rates then they could have headed off some of those stigmas before they even started.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I agree that there is room for improvement with the ways in which institutions approach affirmative action. Being a minority student doesn’t mean that your experiences should be less or harder. I did not have a lot of diversity around me when I was in high school. I remember being overwhelmed when I entered college and saw how different everyone was from me. It was scary, yes, but it was eye opening. I am who I am today because of experiences I had. I think I’ve been more defined by the experiences I’ve had since entering college than before. Minority students should not have to deal with stigmas that make them uncomfortable. We may all be unique in what we look like, are passionate, where we come from-but one common thing brings us all together- our desire for education. Therefore, we all deserve to feel equally comfortable and welcomed. So many issues on diversity are somewhat new to me over the last several years. While I don’t feel I should be blamed for not knowing of these issues when I was a kid, the more I know now makes me want to do more to make others feel more welcome. That stresses that students deal with that cause them to perform more poorly academically upsets me. That’s not fair. I don’t know how to fix it but I’d like to help make experiences better. No one should fail because of discrimination or unequal treatment. Ever. It’s unacceptable.

  5. First off, this blog was super interesting and informative! Affirmative action is a powerful tool to assist minorities. However, like stated above, negative stigmas associated with it lead to some individuals suffering from it and others calling for it to end. Institutions should put more emphasis on developing and supporting their students, especially those who are not as represented. Also, institutions can benefit greatly from generating a more diverse environment. Throughout high school affirmative action was never really brought up, but I began to learn about it right before entering college. Hopefully, we can all work together to increase support and programs for underrepresented students to ensure everyone has the opportunity to succeed and pursue the career they desire. Individuals from all sorts of backgrounds deserve to be supported regardless of their race or gender in order to further society. I do not understand why some individuals seek to get rid of it because of all the good it can achieve if properly implemented. It is unfortunate that some individuals simplify affirmative action down to people being admitted to check boxes and improve institutions demographics because it is so much more than that. I wish institutions spent more time discussing and explaining the benefits of affirmative action rather than only acknowledging it every year while admitting new classes of students.

  6. Blog response #5
    I would like to start by saying that we would not need affirmative action programs in the United States if we have all had access to the same resources from birth. Although it is claimed that bill Gates has a 160 IQ, this alone was not a predictor of his success. Gates was educated in a private preparatory school where he spent many hours in the computer lab while most of the kids of similar ages that attended public schools in underserved communities did not have a single computer. Therefore, I see affirmative action as an attempt to level the plain field at the college level because the correction was never done at the elementary or high school level. It is impossible to have the same degree of preparedness when resources are allocated based on where you live and what school you attend. Thus, I propose here that Affirmative Action in Higher Education itself is neither a Privilege nor a Stigma. It is what that particular environment perceives it to be.
    Initially, it is not even necessary to talk about resource distribution. Income can explain educational inequalities better due nonperforming school always being located in poorer neighborhoods. Income disparities affect race disproportionately which results in students of color from low income neighborhoods being worse prepared to enter college. Affirmative action is one remedy that tries to correct such inequalities. Without affirmative action, it would be difficult for students from disadvantaged populations to get into higher education while complying with the same requirements asked from white students from higher income neighborhoods. Several studies point out that having more diverse colleges where students see other people that look like them or have similar backgrounds results in more innovation, creativity, more aware of culture differences and more open to accept them.
    It is irrational to expect that a student coming from a low performing school will be at the same level than a student coming from a private school in a day or in a week. In the long term, research shows that students admitted through affirmative action have a better chance at graduating and making higher incomes.
    It is ludicrous for Trump to claim that affirmative action is reverse discrimination. If Trump or his administration states that, then anyone can equally state that he bought his children’s degrees which it is not that farfetched. Affirmative action is as much reverse discrimination as white privilege is a “hoax.”
    Managing affirmative actions effectively is more important than paying attention to labels such as stigma or privilege. That is were resources need to go so one day we can say (maybe) affirmative action programs are no longer needed to allow disadvantaged students to have a fair opportunity to college entrance and successful graduation. Until then, affirmative action programs should stay in place and assure that all intellectually capable students have the same opportunities to achieve successful academic and professional lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *