Beyond the Open Door: The Origins of Race-Based Affirmative Action in Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell and the University of Michigan

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What are the origins of race-based affirmative action in college admissions? With only a few exceptions, there remain few evidence-based accounts of when and why such programs emerged among selective institutions of higher education; how heavily they weighed racial considerations; and how exactly race was taken into account. This paper draws on original archival research to closely examine the initial advent and early development of race-based affirmative action at Cornell and the University of Michigan, two of the largest and earliest adopters of such programs. It finds that both schools began to take race-based affirmative action in the early 1960s, responding to the moral impetus of the civil rights movement and concerns about racial patterns of educational inequality in the North as well as South. Compared to subsequent programs, these programs granted a modest degree of weight to race, and they took not only the race of the applicant into account but also the racial composition of the high school attended by the applicant.

Last modified
  • 01/03/2019
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  • 12-003
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