Affirmative action refers to admissions or hiring policies that take into account diversity or financial hardship, as opposed to decisions made strictly on the basis of academic merit. Defenders of affirmative action insist it is necessary to correct systemic biases against minorities and the poor, who are often underrepresented in elite institutions because they lack opportunities or the foundation to excel, or are subject to subtle forms of discrimination. Opponents generally argue that meritocratic hiring or admissions should not be compromised, pointing out that the policy dilutes the talent pool of elite organizations and denies many people whose merit resulted from legitimate effort or intelligence the opportunities they should be afforded.
Consensus sometimes emerges that affirmative action should be premised on economic need rather than racial or cultural background, since the admission of a privileged black student over an underprivileged white one is a perversity in the system. Still, some believe that institutions should reflect the demographics of society as a whole, and that ethnic or cultural background should be weighed against merit independent of financial considerations.