Just as Harvard University is preparing to defend its use of race in admissions in a high-stakes lawsuit, a new poll shows that Americans are conflicted on the issue. Most believe college campuses should be racially diverse, but the majority do not support using race as a factor when admitting students.
The poll, commissioned by WGBH News, asked about race as well as other top issues in higher education, including the value of a college education, mental health and sexual assault, free speech on campus, and taxation of endowments.
The poll comes as Harvard is fighting a lawsuit by an Asian-American student group that accuses the university of discriminating against Asians in admissions. The case, set to go to trial next month, has raised philosophical questions about the importance of campus diversity and how to achieve it.
The poll found that 70 percent of respondents believe admission should be based on more than just grades and exam scores. People said athletic talent, musical talent, leadership, and having overcome hardships were all seen as positive factors for consideration. And 86 percent of respondents said it is important for colleges to create racially and ethnically diverse campuses.
At the same time, the poll found that 72 percent of respondents oppose using race as a factor in admissions — a finding that was consistent among the white and nonwhite people surveyed.
Those results are at odds with 40 years of US Supreme Court precedent that upholds schools’ use of race as one factor in deciding which applicants to admit.
The poll also asked about the value of a college education. As tuition rises, many students and their families, as well as some politicians, have questioned the value of a degree from an expensive private college. The poll found that about two-thirds of respondents believe college is worth attending, but more than half do not believe it’s necessary to get ahead in life.
The poll also surveyed opinions specifically about public colleges and universities. Three-quarters of respondents had a favorable opinion of state schools and said they would be concerned about reduced funding for such schools. However, half of respondents were opposed to paying higher taxes to support such schools.
The poll surveyed 1,002 adults ages 18 to 65 across racial, geographic, and economic groups.
It found that 77 percent of people surveyed believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on society, and 81 percent believe they positively affect communities.
Three-quarters of those surveyed had a positive opinion about public colleges and universities, while only 59 percent had a positive opinion of private colleges, according to the results.
The WGBH poll also asked people about a Trump-era plan to tax university endowments. The federal government this year enacted such a plan, taxing for the first time the endowments of the richest not-for-profit schools, which otherwise do not pay taxes.
Half of the poll respondents said colleges should not pay taxes on their endowments, while 43 percent said they should be taxed and 7 percent were unsure.
About mental health and sexual assault, about two-thirds of people polled said colleges do a good job of providing safe social environments for students. However, they also believe schools are not doing enough to combat mental health problems and sexual assault.
On free speech, poll respondents said they perceive college campuses to be partisan places that lean liberal. They said they believe this to be a problem and said people whose speech may be deemed offensive should still be allowed to speak on college campuses.Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.