Revisiting the quota system as a replacement for affirmative action

Our process of achieving diversity in admissions needs fixing

Last month, the Department of Justice launched an investigation of Harvard University, that lightning-rod of higher-ed, for its affirmative action practices. The Department claims Harvard may have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against applicants based on race.

Regardless of the validity of the investigation, affirmative action has a major perception problem; it is seen as discriminatory to individuals and forcing admissions officers to make subjective guesses. As an institution with a reputation for inclusion and excellence, Vanderbilt should consider implementing a quota-based system instead in order to preserve both fairness and diversity in admissions.

The current system was put into place to maintain diversity, and does so through a delicate ‘balancing’ of privilege. Affirmative action is definitely noble in intent; President Johnson described it as “the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrong of the American Nation.” In addition, it crucially maintains diversity; a school system like the Universities of California, where affirmative action isn’t implemented, has major issues with diversity.    

The problem lies in the process. Every school’s goal is to have the “best” possible class, with the most talented students from each ethnicity, culture and class that the institution can attract. A purely meritocratic system, without adjusting for structural inequality, cannot provide diversity; and yet, the current system of affirmative action has too little meritocracy involved.

Admissions officers view every application received in the same pool, and then attempt to ‘boost’ those from underrepresented minority groups, by evaluating minority status as a boon. The perception issue lies here: two people, alike in everything but race, will be evaluated differently. For minority groups, this results in  students often being viewed as “diversity admits.” For majority groups, it seems to perfectly match discriminatory behavior.

Instead, I propose that Vanderbilt adopt a version of the quota system, frequently viewed as an alternative to affirmative action. The idea is that the applications are not viewed in a single sprawling pool; rather, applications would be sorted into smaller pools subdivided by class, race and other factors admissions has deemed important for diversity. Each pool receives, and is limited by, a certain number of spots (determined by demographics or another reasonable metric); admissions then seeks to fill each of those pools with the most qualified candidates they can attract.

This ensures diversity more reliably than the current system, but avoids the unfair comparison between applicants who are of different races or classes. Under this system, a majority-group applicant who gets rejected cannot claim discrimination, for they were never evaluated directly against a minority-group applicant. Rather, it enshrines the ideals of meritocracy, while also recognizing the need for diversity.

Quota systems often have problems with intersectionality, such as with African American women. I would propose that at least for the major categories of race, gender and class, the pools themselves be intersectional: that the University formulate a web of pools that span all the possible permutations of different identities.

One novel method of determining the size of each pool would be by application percentage: the percentage of the class who would be in each pool would be equivalent to the percentage of applicants in the pool. This system would provide a simple way for each class to match demographic shifts, and would be an impartial way of determining quota sizes. However, this method would only work with a removal of the application fee or income based recalibration, as poorer students are gated by application fees and so may not apply in the same quantities. No matter the method of determining pool sizes, the general concept is sufficient to ensure diversity and fairness at the same time.

The primary issue with a traditional quota system is legal; in Bakke v. UC Davis, Justice Powell, speaking for the Supreme Court, argued against a UC quota program that reserved 16 seats for minority students. The logic of the ruling was that the reservations gave minority students a boost of 16 possible seats, an unfair advantage over the rest of the student body. My proposal would sidestep that by limitations: though it reserves seats for each group, it also restricts them to those seats; if the percentages are unbalanced, it would be easy to remedy by recalibrating the numbers.

Another issue is that a quota system makes minorities seem like they need a boost. That’s completely true. However, we can’t simultaneously want real structural adjustments but also insist on an appearance of equal treatment. The truth (that the current system of affirmative action also assumes) is that minorities do need a boost, and that necessity isn’t a judgement on the individual merits of each minority member, but rather a judgement of the historical inequities perpetuated in America.

In the current system, the privilege granted from traits like race and gender is unquantifiable, yet admissions officers are called upon to weigh them for every decision. This quota process makes it so that applicants are evaluated against people in similar positions to them, rather than having to figure out how to adjust evaluations based on difference. Through subdivisions, Vanderbilt can make affirmative action a transparent and equitable process that still maintains a diverse, vibrant and excellent community, through proper implementation of a quota system with careful research and deliberation on the part of the administration.

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Yuhang Zhang
Yuhang Zhang ('21) writes for the Opinion Section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He plans to major in Law, History and Society and Human Organization and Development, with a minor in Business. Yuhang often spreads his controversial opinions across campus publications, and enjoys setting up calendars for weeks in advance. He finds great joy inside attending random events, and often finds himself binge-reading Buzzfeed in the library.


  1. Laws are put in place by people and, as such, can be revoked by people. A thing being deemed illicit by the law does not render it inherently wrong. There may be reasons why the quota system would not work or would be problematic, but dismissing any call for change as “a waste of time” based on the premise of “that’s currently illegal” is unnecessarily limiting. Laws change with the demands of societies. It is the *reason* for the law which would provide solid argumentation against this op ed piece, not the law itself.

  2. You silly undergraduate. Let’s go back to Joe B. Wyatt when the University gained reputation and had character. Today’s campus and population seems like a bunch of pathetic diversity-for-diversity-alone idiots every time I return to my beloved Vanderbilt.
    USNews etc. has fooled Zeppos and company into thinking diversity is a winning hand. Watch the university slowly crumble with each additional plucking of some unfortunate, but admittedly probably almost smart enough impoverished diversity quota admission, off some backward corner of the U.S., or the globe. Eventually y’all will begin to see why this feel-good act does not add (and arguably subtracts) value to a very qualified, well-educated 18-year old from a non-broken home, with a good father and mother that is well-adjusted and ready to consume a great education without a long list of obstructions. That 18-year old quota victim maybe even had a grandparent or two, a parent, aunt, or sibling, that walked the wedge between West End and 21st years ago, then left, and after which greatly added to society, built a family, and endowed the University with treasure from a good life.
    But hey, let’s set up a quota so the now much fewer hard-studying white girls that were cheerleaders from private high schools can all learn about the wonders of being poor in Indonesia, the glory of being circumcised as a young girl in Pakistan, the life lessons learned dodging “the man” and calling in sick for a drunk father, or room with someone of long ago African descent to learn how difficult it now is to be rewarded a scholarship for being black but yet now having to live that free education in a region of the country that is only known for suppression.
    Give me a break, you whiny shits. This Alum has stopped giving. I hope others have begun doing the same.

    • Something tells me this alum has way too much time on their hands. Calling students “whiny shits” is not productive. Your “beloved Vanderbilt” was an illusion at best, and a self-selecting machine for the good old boys at worst. If you took the time to have a conversation with the students you are opposing with your pedantic whining you would quickly find that they are all bright, qualified individuals. The fact that you would stop giving, if you even gave at all to the University, demonstrates an obvious lack of critical thinking this University is known for cultivating in students.

      I do find the piece problematic, but it certainly does not warrant a bigoted, isolationist, and elitist response and certainly not one that contains profanity.

    • USNews does not value “diversity”, it values branding and reputation. Zeppose clearly knows that these correlate with the statistical caliber (namely in the form of SAT/ACT scores) of the student body. Go look at how high Vanderbilt’s scores are today (higher than most of its peers which have equal or even far more rigorous academic environments). I would argue that the admissions folks value it almost at the expense of intellectual engagement, or even real talent (SAT/ACT may be some proxy to IQ, but hardly predicts talent in a specific disciplines or disciplines more so than one’s ability to take relatively easy exams with close-ended items on them. I would rather take the student with the 1350-1550 who went to Intel, national science fairs, and.or international olympiads or won national poetry contests, performed at Carnegie Hall as opposed to the student who scored 1550-1600 who is qualified as this glorious “well-rounded” individual who has never deeply engaged or showed much of a deep passion for anything, but instead constantly works to pad a resume and transcript.). It is fairly obvious that Vanderbilt values whatever it defines as a “meritocracy” (primarily in the form of SAT scores) over what you are basically describing as “ill-fated diversity”. At least in terms of scores (whether or not a premium is put on this), and maybe GPA, the current students at Vanderbilt are likely far more “qualified” than they were in your day even with the more diverse demographics (a lot of which is coming from the growth of Asians’ representation). Hell, they have higher scores than Duke, Penn, Stanford, Northwestern, Emory, etc., most who are more diverse than Vanderbilt.

      By your logic, you should be proud of the approach it has taken. I personally think it is shooting itself in the foot as many of the schools with lower scores and more diverse student bodies still continue to match (near caliber schools like Georgetown, Emory, and Washington University) or outperform (Schools like Duke, Penn, and Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and MIT who Vanderbilt now has similar scores) it in terms of “output” (post-grad prizes and scholarships, grad school and professional school placement). So VU is indeed trying to be a meritocracy and live up to your expectations, but may have a questionable definition of merit that is perhaps too limited.

  3. So you are creating a system that incentivizes reproductive capability over any mental capability. Please tell me how you see this end state playing out. I sort of see a sort of ‘Idiocracy’ scenario where you created a system that rewards people as long as they are the dominant population group. Or perhaps, there will be further stratification and racial division as people try to clearly define what makes them part of a racial group. What does it mean to be black? What if your parents are mixed? What if you only had 1/4 Ecuadorian blood, does that give you the same leverage as someone with 1/2 Columbian blood? Really, the only demographic information we need on application is 1) US Citizen 2) non-citizen.

  4. So you are creating a system that incentivizes reproductive capability over any mental capability. Please tell me how you see this end state playing out. I sort of see a sort of ‘Idiocracy’ scenario where you created a system that rewards people as long as they are the dominant population group. Or perhaps, there will be further stratification and racial division as people try to clearly define what makes them part of a racial group. What does it mean to be black? What if your parents are mixed? What if you only had 1/4 Ecuadorian blood, does that give you the same leverage as someone with 1/2 Columbian blood? Really, the only demographic information we need on application is 1) US Citizen 2) non-citizen.

    Racial quotas can’t exist in a system that promotes equality. The very idea of classifying people based on skin color or blood is conservative and backwards. Hopefully the United States can move forward into an age where all citizens are treated equally.

  5. Besides the illegality of a quota system, there are manifold problems with it. It is a cure much, much worse than the disease.

    It will not remove the stigma of inferiority that is associated with affirmative action. Everyone will know that the admits from the black pool are inferior to the admits from the white pool who are inferior to the admits in the Asian pool.

    It is likely that the students admitted in these diversity pools are going to be the worst students in each class. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need to set up this complicated system in the first place. You could just let them compete with everyone at once. The more of such students who are admitted because of diversity the worse the overall student body will be. And you are not doing these minority students any favors to lure them to a university for which they are ill-prepared and who are going to graduate in the bottom of their class, if they graduate at all.

    Meanwhile, Asian students will find it harder to get in, as they compete just with each other, while many inferior students are admitted because they were only required to compete with other inferior students.

    The problem to be addressed is insufficient diversity. But of course, no one ever demonstrates how much diversity is optimal. Is 12% black enough to provide all the benefits of diversity? Or would 25% be optimal? Is it sufficient to have a few transgender students or do we need at least one in every classroom? What if we don’t have any South Asian lesbians? Who will speak for them?

    And what, exactly, is to be gained from all this racial and sexual diversity if everyone thinks the same? And I thought that it was a microaggression to ask the token diversity student in each class to provide the perspective of his group. “What do black people think about this issue,” you are probably going to ask the one black kid in the class.

  6. As an outsider (I am not associated with Vanderbilt, just passing by), I am very surprised by the immature and lack of critical thinking of this author.
    The author should first take a more in depth look on whether diversity of race is important? Does it help people to learn calculus, for instance?
    Second, is the proposal even legal?
    And, does it solve the problem he is addressing?
    A quick reflection of these very superficial questions already reveals how misguided this article is.