At Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin makes the argument that Texas’ 10% plan, which gives any high school student finishing in the top 10% of his/her class automatic acceptance to the state university of choice, is worse than traditional affirmative action.
From this New York Times article, Somin makes three fundamental points.
First — that “it often leads universities to admit students that are probably inferior to those they would have chosen otherwise”:
However, the ten percent plan affects a great many more admissions decisions than even the most rigid old-style affirmative action systems do. Rarely, if ever, do traditional affirmative action plans determine the admission of more than 15-20% of a school’s student body. By contrast, at the University of Texas at Austin, over 70% of the student body was admitted under the ten percent plan. While some of these students would surely have gotten in anyway, it is highly likely that the ten percent plan leads to much larger sacrifices of academic merit than do racial preferences similar to those used at most other academic institutions.
Second, Somin writes that the formula encourages “gaming” the system — that students will take less challenging classes or even transfer to less-rigorous schools, to boost standing within a class ranking to ensure admission.
Finally, he says:
the ten percent plan also has the effect of disadvantaging high-achieving minority students who go to strong schools and – in part for that reason – fall short of the top ten percent in their class. Not only are these students disfavored relative to minority students attending weaker schools, they are also disfavored compared to whites in weaker schools as well
I’ve only pulled the high points of Somin’s well-made argument; I strongly encourage you to read it all.
Ultimately, however, while I see a level of validity to each of Somin’s points, they aren’t enough to carry the conclusion, and so I disagree; the 10% plan is not worse than traditional affirmative action.
Does UT Austin admit students it might not have chosen otherwise? I suspect it does. It is viewed as Texas’ “Flagship” university — the best public undergraduate program the state has. Yet arguing that the baby should be tossed with the bathwater is a bit much, when merely changing the water a bit will do.
Rather than offering this 10% automatic acceptance to the university of choice, why not merely assure acceptance to A university, and enable UT-A to choose from the top 15% instead — on a competitive basis.
Do kids game the system? Absolutely some do — and they do so with more than a little assistance from their parents. However, most (or at least, the ones that I know) recognize that the excellence of the preparation will bring other options to their children — often beyond this “choice” state university.
Somin’s third point about a black student in a high achieving school not making the top 10% falls to the paragraph above. There are enormous opportunities for students at other universities for strong, motivated high achievers; often, these come with scholarships and better educations than that offered by a public university (flagship or not).
Of course, the 10% Law is only helpful in terms of addressing racial barriers when schools are segregated. Our goal, actually, should be an excellent education for everyone, regardless of district finances or racial demographics.
If we could achieve that, perhaps we could then look at other models, based instead on motivation and economic barriers. But we haven’t, and it doesn’t appear as if we will, either, anytime soon.