Lessons from college admissions: How to create more diversity in politics

In this Jan. 9, 2019 photo, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., greets the audience at George Washington University in Washington, during an event kicking off her book tour. Harris, a first-term senator and former California attorney general known for her rigorous questioning of President Donald Trump’s nominees, entered the Democratic presidential race on Monday. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)

The 2020 presidential race may be more than a year away, but that has not stopped prospective candidates from forming exploratory committees or outright announcing their candidacy. U.S. Senator Kamala Harris from California became the latest Democrat to announce a presidential run, adding to what is poised to be the most diverse presidential race in U.S. history. A lot of the national political dialogue is already focusing around the importance of a candidate's race and gender. While many voters are skeptical of weighing a candidate’s race and gender, college admission offices offer a compelling argument that voters should take such considerations. 

A prospective student applying to competitive schools must have academic qualifications in order to be seriously considered for admission. Once an applicant meets the academic thresholds (grades and test scores), the admissions office takes a holistic approach when accepting students. At the most basic level, the admissions office considers an applicant’s academic interests, race, geographic location, extracurricular activities and other factors before making a final decision. This is done in order to create a campus environment that is diverse and representative of the real world. Universities regularly adopt this form of affirmative action because they are still bringing in the best students. In fact, competitive universities have high graduation rates and many of their students go on to become successful professionals. Michelle Obama, for example recently shared in her memoir Becoming that affirmative action might have helped her gain admission to Princeton University. 

Similarly, a presidential candidate must have a demonstrated track record of leadership and ability in order to run for president. However, the political world is not representative of the demographics of the United States. Presidential candidates have historically been white and male, even though there is no shortage of qualified female and non-white prospective candidates. This suggests that systemic obstacles have kept women and people of color out of presidential campaigns, a clear violation of the textbook definition of representation. Moreover, cultural attitudes have given rise to the notion that “women are not popular candidates” and that the country is not ready to elect certain minority candidates. 

Leadership is not a contest of popularity or a question of voters’ readiness for a particular candidate. Perpetuating these false beliefs is synonymous with supporting electoral systems that will never allow a woman like Kamala Harris to win a presidential race. Had Harvard or Columbia University never taken steps to eliminate similar obstacles from college admissions, people like Barack Obama might not have made it to those schools. A similar form of affirmative action from the public is necessary to bring women and people of color closer to the White House. 
Once a candidate meets the presidential qualifications, voters should consider their gender and race in an attempt to create a more representative government and overcome cultural and systemic barriers that make it so difficult for women and minorities to win presidential campaigns. This is a process that is already happening in local campaigns, with more women and people of color running for public office (and winning) than ever before. Even the new Congress in Washington has seen more than 100 women, including the first Muslim congressperson and Native American congresswoman. The next step is the White House.  

If the most prestigious colleges in the nation have benefited from making concerted efforts to bring in women and people of color to their campuses, what do voters have to lose from bringing women and people of color to the White House? 


Michael Hernandez is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email Michael.g.2.hernandez@uconn.edu