Texas’ 10% plan

Posted on Saturday 16 December 2006

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.

Others blogging: Joanne Jacobs and David Schraub.

3 Comments for 'Texas’ 10% plan'

  1.  
    Jack
    December 17, 2006 | 4:22 am
     

    While Ilya Somin’s law experience may give him enough background to feel the need to properly critique the Top 10% rule, I give my experience as having graduated under the Top 10% rule in Texas as my expertise.

    I’ll start by saying that no matter what system you create, someone will think of a way to “game” it. It is unrealistic to think otherwise when people are competing for a limited number of seats. Even if there was a system where people couldn’t “game” it, they would try to.

    What is it about “10%” that people do not care for? If you look at Somin’s
    and other’s arguments against it, they go back to numbers that are caps or limits placed on how many students. No one likes the idea that however qualified they are, there is a limit that keeps them from what they want. Before the Top 10% rule, there was nothing to blame for why some people didn’t get in to a particular Texas school. There are requirements for everyone, but if you got rejected due to space, there was nothing to blame it on other than that you didn’t submit your stuff early enough. Now with Top 10%, you can blame it on a system that you feel is unfair and make yourself feel better by saying there are people in there who don’t belong and an unfair law put them in there. Think of the countless people who have applied to Harvard or Stanford and got rejected but where well qualified. Do you think any of them ever felt that someone was accepted to those schools and didn’t belong compared to another?

    The idea that one way to “game” the system is to take a weak course track and get higher ranking is very possible in theory. But it is not the case by default in many Texas schools. Schools may not be the best in Texas, but they are not stupid. Most schools have the actual ranking of the students set up in favor of those who take AP or IB courses. The more advanced courses you take, the better your ranking will be compared to someone who took the regular courses. This is not mandatory of schools, but lots of them do it. The number of students who get in with Top 10% by taking easy regular courses is not a realistic threat.

    The idea of students moving from one school to an easier one for ranking I do not doubt happens out there. I doubt it no more than I do that students move so they can play on a better athletic team. Once again, how common is this? Not very. Consider that for a family to move, they have to move houses and do so to a more advantageous school that does not alter the family income situation. The number of people that can do this are going to seriously find holes in whatever system you create.

    A student could even take the simple life through high school by taking just enough advanced courses to rank high enough, but that will not necessarily get the student scholarships. Money is the biggest motivator to the students in the Top 10% amongst each other. They do not stride for excellence so that it looks good for admission, they do it so that they get the most financial aid from the schools they apply to. Texas has deregulated tuition so now it along with fees can rise every semester. That’s not easy to prepare for.

    Texas has provided the Top 10% rule to acknowledge that not every school is great and can prepare students evenly. This is to recognize that students, of all races, cannot help what school their family has been stuck with. Not everyone can just move to a good district. Yes, lots of people live in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio where there are lots of schools. But lots of people also live west of I-35 where that is not largely the case and Texas higher education is meant to serve the entire state area.

    The Top 10% rule is not a “Jim Crow” type law that tries to hide an evil motive of hindering minority applicants. If the point of universities is to educate, the Top 10% rule has a lot more to do with intelligence than race of the applicant ever does. It really does make more sense to look at someone academically than by race and assume something about their life that way. How prejudiced is that?

    If people don’t like that there is not enough room at UT Austin for everyone to go there, then they need to realize what the bigger picture is. Texas has tops in any given major, 3 good public schools. Only UT is tops in nearly all the majors they provide. A state our size cannot afford to have everyone racing to so few schools and face massive disappointment that not everyone got in.

  2.  
    December 17, 2006 | 10:15 am
     

    Jack, I think there were a lot of assumptions made by Somin (and others) that don’t hold up well in the light of day… but in fairness, I think it’s partially due to the focus on UT Austin (by the Plan, the article, and Texas residents).

    What I like best about the 10% plan is that it broadens accessibility far more widely to Texans by several criteria — racial/ethnic, economic, and geographic.

    The biggest problem, of course, is that racial representation today is below the state’s demographic percentages. For blacks, for instance, it looks to be about half.

    What’s not being discussed (that I saw) is that the percentage has doubled since 2003 (CS Monitor link), and in the case of both Hispanic and Black attendance, the numbers are higher now than they were before Hopwood blocked Texas’ affirmative action approach.

    Is it great? No. Is it worse than affirmative action? Also no.

  3.  
    April 8, 2008 | 9:16 am
     

    [...] The complaint, filed yesterday in Austin (.pdf here), states that plaintiff Abigail Fisher is graduating in the top ~12% of her class. She therefore falls outside of the top 10% admissions policy (prior post on that here). Instead, her suit challenges the admissions criteria for students who fall outside the 10% plan. The top 10 percent law was adopted after a 1996 court ruling stopped Texas colleges and universities from considering race and ethnicity in deciding admissions; UT-Austin’s minority enrollment is higher now than at any time since the law passed. [...]

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