Texas Limits ‘10%’ Admissions
Texas has modified its revolutionary “10 percent” program for higher education admissions after university administrators complained that they were “going to lose control over our class.”
The “10 percent” plan in Texas has been one of the most successful experiments ever tried to get more minority students into top public universities with race-neutral criteria. It spawned similar (if less ambitious) programs in California and Florida and prompted numerous debates about equity in higher education admissions. At the behest of the University of Texas at Austin and suburban politicians, and following several years of debate, the Texas Legislature on Saturday agreed to a plan that will limit the use of the system so that Austin is required to fill only 75 percent of its freshman slots for Texans under the program.
Texas has many high schools that are overwhelmingly Latino or black — so the thinking of those who crafted the law was that 10 percent admissions would ensure that diversity would be maintained at competitive universities like UT-Austin, which would admit the top graduates of such high schools. As time has gone on, the system has worked as predicted, increasing minority enrollments at UT-Austin and also resulting in the admission of rural white students who attended high schools that previously didn’t send many students to the flagship.
While the University of Texas at Austin now has the legal right to practice affirmative action in admissions (and does so), many advocates for minority students have viewed percent plans as a key tool for promoting diversity because these plans are race neutral and because they result in admissions decisions being based on class rank, not on the SAT or ACT, standardized tests on which black and Latino students score, on average, at lower levels than do white and Asian students.
The problem with percent admissions, according UT-Austin, is that it’s too popular. “We were going to lose control over our class,” William Powers Jr., president of the university, said in an interview Sunday. He called the Legislature’s action “a very positive development.”
Many of us who oppose quota- or “numerical target-” based racial preferences were quite sympathetic to this program. It’s undeniably still affirmative action and potentially rewards mediocre students from poor communities while punishing outstanding students in hypercompetitive affluent suburbs. But it’s at least targeted to helping lift disadvantaged kids into a better life. And, by all accounts, it has been very successful in that regard.
This was, frankly, inevitable. The state’s flagship university, the University of Texas at Austin, simply can’t enroll ten percent of an enormous state’s high school students. It’s already at 50,000 students — ridiculously large — and would need to grow further. Beyond that, there are other problems:
Even though the university attracts outstanding students through 10 percent admissions, Powers said, there are gaps. There are not enough students enrolling that way who want to major in key areas such as geosciences, computer engineering and education. Earlier this year, Powers also suggested (in an argument that received plenty of attention from non-academics in Texas) that 10 percent was making it difficult to recruit athletes in key sports, since many of the best athletes are not in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.
Now, the sports recruiting argument is hard to justify, both in terms of the mission of the university and in terms of UT’s obvious success in recruiting for key sports. But the “10 percent” program is obviously making it nearly impossible to recruit international and even out-of-state students.
This modification strikes the right balance. It’s targetted only at the single campus that’s been overwhelmed by the rule and still allocates a full three quarters of the slots even there to those graduating in the top ten percent of their Texas high school class. There are enough slots for the other 12,000-odd students denied admission to the state’s flagship campus at Texas A&M, another nationally ranked school with a fine networking base.
Our general understanding is that the most resources ought to flow to the “best” schools and the “best” schools ought to serve the “best” students who “deserve” to be able to go there. Under this framework, any departure from a strict scheme of “merit” looks suspicious. But another way to look at things would be to say that of course relatively able students from relatively privileged backgrounds deserve a higher education, but a larger amount of resources ought to flow to the students with more problems. After all, it’s the worse-prepared kids—typically from less privileged backgrounds—who have the most in the way of educational needs. The marginal dollar of either the taxpayer or the charitable donor will do a lot more for society when spent on people who aren’t already the best students.
That’s true up to a point. Again, while I think the justification for race-based preferences has long since ended I’m sympathetic to reaching out to people who are actually underprivileged. It does not, however, necessarily follow that ten percent of all students from the poorest Texas school districts ought attend the single best university in the state at the expense of the highest performing students. After all, as Matt repeatedly points out, simply having graduated from an elite school considered “qualification” for any job thirty years later and having been relegated to, say, Southern Methodist University permanently relegates one to ridicule as a mediocrity.
Kevin’s take is more humorous:
Never underestimate the power of suburban parents. They never give up and they never surrender.
This is not, incidentally, a bad thing. While family background, luck, and a variety of other external factors undeniably play a part in success, a goodly number of suburbanites actually worked really hard to get where they are, partly for the point of giving their children a better life than they had. While we shouldn’t punish the children of the poor for having less affluent or less involved parents, neither should we punish the children of the successful because their parents worked to put them into schools where most of the students are above average.