Frequently Asked Questions on Equal Opportunity
Q. What is equal opportunity?
A. Equal opportunity is an important tool to provide qualified individuals with equal access to educational and professional opportunities they would otherwise have been denied despite their strong qualifications. These policies make certain that all Americans are considered fairly and equally for jobs and educational opportunities.
Q. Why is equal opportunity needed?
A. Equal opportunity remedies past discrimination, fights present-day discrimination, and promotes diversity in our society. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees equal opportunity is necessary, because "in order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity" (Supreme Court majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).
Q. Is discrimination still a problem in America?
A. Yes, and disparities in opportunities continue to persist. Women earn approximately 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Latinas earn 56 cents for every dollar white men earn. African-American men earn 75 percent of what white males earn. In 2002, the median household income for whites was $44,964, compared with $29,177 for blacks. And the poverty rate for blacks is almost triple that of whites.
Q. Is equal opportunity fair?
A. Yes, equal opportunity encourages fairness. Equal opportunity initiatives are designed to help companies, organizations, and educational institutions evaluate candidates equally and fairly -- that is, based on their qualifications. These programs provide equal access to opportunity for qualified individuals who might not have had a chance otherwise.
Courts have taken great pains to balance competing interests in shaping equal opportunity remedies. Under these principles, there must be a very strong reason (e.g. to remedy discrimination) for developing any equal opportunity program; the program must only apply to qualified candidates, and the program must be limited in scope and flexible.
Q. Why should colleges and universities use equal opportunity in admissions?
A. In June 2003, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on equal opportunity [Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)] upholding the use of race in admissions decisions. Reiterating America's commitment to equal opportunity, the Court concluded that "effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized."
Equal opportunity ensures that colleges and universities can identify and attract outstanding individuals from historically underrepresented groups. The diversity of our college campuses is critical to the future strength of our society and our economy. Colleges have always admitted students based upon a wide range of criteria that includes extracurricular activities and life experiences, as well as quantitative measures such as test scores. Diversity on college campuses improves the learning process for all students -- male and female, regardless of race or gender. Equal opportunity ensures that an applicant's full background and life experience can be considered as part of an admissions decision.
Q. Why is equal opportunity needed in federal government contracting?
A. Women and people of color are still underrepresented in many of the businesses with which the government contracts. For example, even though women-owned firms represent an estimated 28 percent of all businesses in the United States, these firms obtained a mere 2.9 percent of the $235.4 billion in federal government contracts awarded in fiscal year 2002.
Q. Have equal opportunity programs in employment worked?
A. Yes, we have made great progress in the past generation, but there is much more to be done. Drastic inequalities still exist in hiring practices and salary. On average, college educated African-American women annually earn $19,054 less than college educated white men. Also, on average, a woman with a Master's degree makes $4,765 less than a man with an undergraduate degree. With the help of equal opportunity, minorities and women now have greater access to the business world. We need to further this progress so that everyone has an equal shot at higher-level jobs and fair compensation. The Supreme Court agrees that the "skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, culture, ideas, and viewpoints" (Supreme Court majority opinion, Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).
Q. What have been the results of equal opportunity programs in higher education?
A. Equal opportunity creates more open, fair, and meaningful access to higher education for all qualified members of our society. Over the past 30 years, equal opportunity has contributed to increases in the number of women and people of color enrolling and graduating from colleges and universities. Since the late 1980s, students of color have increased their total college enrollment by 57.2 percent, and the proportion of women earning bachelor's degrees is increasing steadily. The Supreme Court agrees that student body diversity is a compelling interest in equal opportunity programs at colleges and universities, given that it "better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals" (Supreme Court majority opinion, Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).
Q. Why do some people oppose equal opportunity programs?
A. Misperceptions drive much of the opposition to equal opportunity. Large numbers of white Americans incorrectly believe that African-Americans are as well off as whites in terms of their jobs, incomes, schooling, and health care, according to a 2001 national survey by The Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University. Many Americans also believe that women have reached equality in the workplace.
In fact, government statistics show that blacks have narrowed these gaps, but continue to lag significantly behind whites in employment, income, education, and access to health care. Additionally, even though women-owned firms represent an estimated 28 percent of all businesses in the United States, these firms have obtained a mere 2.9 percent of the $235.4 billion in federal government contracts awarded in 2002.
Updated January 1, 2004