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The Case for Affirmative Action

February 07, 2023

ARC Justice Clinic Director Cara McClellan GEd’12 discusses how affirmative action benefits institutions in this Q&A with Penn Today.

From Penn Today:

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the fall over the use of affirmative action in admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina and is expected to release decisions in the cases in the coming months. In the first of a series exploring affirmative action, Penn Today talks to Cara McClellan GEd’12 of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School about how the practice has benefitted institutions and how the diversity it brings has helped colleges and universities fulfill their educational missions.

McClellan is the founding director and practice associate professor of the Advocacy for Racial and Civil (ARC) Justice Clinic, [Penn Carey Law’s] newest in-house clinic, which provides students with hands-on experience working in civil rights litigation and policy advocacy to combat systemic racism. The ARC Justice Clinic is inspired in part by Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Q: Why was affirmative action necessary to implement at colleges and universities, particularly at the time when it was implemented?

— Affirmative action was created to level the playing field by combatting the impact of years of racial discrimination. Most colleges and universities excluded people who were not white men or who did not come from elite backgrounds. Unfortunately, the effects of systemic racism are still felt today.

Many colleges and universities continue to have admissions policies that consider criteria that unfairly disadvantage applicants of color and low-income applicants, in part due to historical discrimination and the reality that K-12 education remains racially segregated and unequal today. For example, legacy preferences benefit students who come from backgrounds that were not historically discriminated against and excluded from higher education during past generations. Some colleges and universities evaluate students based on how many advanced placement (AP) courses they have taken, but schools that serve students of color and low-income students are less likely to offer AP courses. In addition, many elite schools rely on SAT or ACT scores, but these standardized tests are strongly correlated with the income of a student’s parents and whether the student had access to expensive test-preparation programs. In short, many of the criteria that colleges use to evaluate applicants are not actually fair and neutral, making it necessary to affirmatively consider the impact of race and access to resources when assembling a qualified class of students.

Read the full interview with McClellan at Penn Today.