The Ten-Percent Non-Solution?

Ilya Somin argues on the basis of a recent New York Times article that Texas’ “10 percent” admissions plan is worse than the race-conscious affirmative action plan replaced, particularly at UT-Austin, the state’s flagship campus. According to the Times:

[T]he formula has also had unintended consequences that the Texas Legislature is now wrestling with; it has become the tail that wagged the dog, university officials suggest. Seventy-one percent of the 6,864 Texans in the freshman class are top 10 percenters, compared with 41 percent in the first year the formula was used. That steady growth has frustrated college officials who have seen their flexibility to admit high school class presidents, high SAT scorers, science fair winners, immigrant strivers, artists and the like narrow.

“At some point you have to ask yourself, do you really want to admit your whole class on a single criteria,” said Bruce Walker, the admissions director at Austin. “It doesn’t give you the opportunity to recognize other kinds of merit.” …

The 10 percenters have proved to be stalwart students; barely 1 percent are propped up with tutoring. But the formula has unleashed a certain amount of gamesmanship, with more than a few students choosing easier high school courses or schools to strengthen their chances for admission.

More important, the formula has meant that the university may neglect desirable black and Hispanic students, as well as white students, who attend lustrous high schools but may not finish in the top 10. Marcus Price, a black finance major, for example, graduated from the High School for Engineering Professions in Houston, a competitive magnet school, with a 3.4 grade point average that included three A.P. courses. But with so many college-bound students to compete with, he ranked only in the top 20th percentile.

“I thought it was funny that you could go to a less competitive school, score a total of 800 or 900 on your SATs and get into U.T. at Austin as long as you were in the top 10 percent,” said Mr. Price, who scored 1200 on his SATs.

Somin argues that this plan is worse than what it replaced because it affects more students and because of the “gamesmanship” noted above. That may be so, but blatant discrimination on the basis of students’ ethnic heritage does have at least one serious drawback: it is illegal.

This “gamesmanship” may also have quite desirable consequences: despite the article’s bizarre statement that the plan “is based an assumption that Texas high schools are roughly equal,” a statement not borne out by the debate supporting the plan’s adoption in the mid-1990s, if the plan encourages mobility of strong students from traditionally strong schools to weaker schools there could be valuable spillover effects in improving schools that have traditionally been weak. The 10% plan has also improved diversity in Austin on other dimensions besides race:

[State Sen. Royce] West also argued that students should not be penalized because their parents could not afford housing in affluent areas with top-flight schools.

“Children don’t have control over the environment they find themselves in,” he said. “What they have control over is their work ethic and the amount of work they can put in into getting into the top 10 percent.”

Mr. West may not be as formidable as he once was — he was not reappointed as chairman — but officials here know he will be adept at horse trading with unexpected allies — white and Hispanic legislators from rural districts who are tickled by how many long-bypassed constituents are now attending Austin.

As long as American states continue to provide taxpayer-subsidized higher education at state-run universities and colleges, they have an obligation to make those opportunities available to as many qualified residents as possible–rather than just the bluebloods whose progeny have traditionally dominated the best-funded “flagship” public schools in many states. As such, the Texas 10% plan has been a welcome democratization of higher education in the state–even putting aside its merits as a substitute for traditional quota-like affirmative action programs.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. “[B]ut blatant discrimination on the basis of students’ ethnic heritage does have at least one serious drawback: it is illegal.”

    Well, that (or more accurately, whether Affirmative Action constitutes that) depends on how one conceptualizes the law–thus far, only the 5th Circuit (where Texas resides) agrees with you. And, as Somin points out, if one truly believes that AA is the mirror image of Jim Crow, then one is equally obligated to reject “10% plans” as the mirror image of nominally race-neutral Southern “workarounds” of Brown.

    As for me, I haven’t heard a substantive rebuttal to Somin’s thesis aside from the argument–which apparently is supposed to be self-sustaining–that AA uses race to pursue racial integration. Since I have yet to fathom why that, in of itself, is offensive (in both senses of the term–it neither violates ethical proprieties, nor does it provide a positive rationale for decisionmaking), I think his points still carry.

  2. Personally, I have no issue with the practice of affirmative action as a remedial step at institutions with a documented history of racial discrimination in admissions, such as UT-Austin. The case there is much stronger than at (say) Michigan, which was at issue in Grutter.

    As for the “workarounds” of Brown, the parallel there is weak at best because the end-runs around Brown were designed to be racially discriminatory and were racially discriminatory in their effects as well, perpetuating segregation. The “10% plan” doesn’t appear to be racially discriminatory in its effects, and it appears to encourage other forms of diversity (like geographic and economic disparities) that were not considered important when UT made explicit use of racial categories in admissions.

  3. Chris,

    Is there any sort of statue of limitations in your calculus of AA being okay for schools with past discrimination? Its been over 50 years since Sweatt. You will have a hard time finding someone in any capacity in the school that was there during segregation.

    What of current racial intolerance. The seattle school district had on their web site that only whites could exhibit racial prejudice (which is ironic as it in itself was thus exhibiting racial prejudice). The school was never segregated, but now determines which school a child goes to primarily based on the color of their skin. Does this modern day racism start a clock ticking for them?

  4. Sweatt may have been 50+ years ago, but I doubt UT-Austin has been in full compliance with Sweatt and its progeny that long… my guess is that UT-Austin probably started real compliance by admitting non-token numbers of blacks in the late 60s or early 70s after abandoning resistance to Sweatt, Brown, et al. (I don’t know the exact history of desegregation in the UT system, but that is a typical pattern in the South).

    Not to mention the state continues to maintain other university systems with lower levels of desegregation, particularly at historically-black institutions like Texas Southern and Prairie View; it stands to reason that the UT system would have to be part of a comprehensive desegregation plan. You can’t start the “clock” until an institution starts complying with the law in full, to my mind. (That would also suggest that Michigan and other northern states that never practiced racial segregation in higher education are well beyond their “clock.”)

    As for the Seattle district, court supervision would seem to be called for if there is evidence that the district engaged in racial classifications, but not knowing the specifics of this particular item on their website (was it an official policy? the viewpoint of an administrator? the viewpoint of an individual who had no authority?) I can’t say…

  5. madmatt says:

    Then why not discrimination based on “legacy” status….why should “johnny” get a leg up because daddy went to a specific school 20 years ago? Lets be honest GWB would never of gotten into yale except for daddy! So preferences for rich white kids is okay with you!