What Harvard can learn from Texas admission policies

If elite institutions admitted 10 per cent of high school classes there’d be improved university access and social mobility for under-represented students, argues David Orentlicher

August 20, 2018

When it comes to the use of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions, no one seems to be happy with the way that it’s playing out.

Opponents claim that taking into account an applicant’s race or ethnicity amounts to “reverse discrimination”. However, supporters recognise that disadvantaged minorities have been losing ground under affirmative action. Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to attend a top college than they were 35 years ago.

As a professor of constitutional law, I’ve studied an important college admission policy from Texas that – when paired with affirmative action – can more fully address inequality and its consequences.

This policy bears more relevance now that the Trump administration has reversed Obama-era support for affirmative action, following instead a Bush administration guideline that “strongly encourages race-neutral” admissions practices.

I believe that the policy could also be instructive for Harvard, which is currently facing a lawsuit charging that the university’s efforts to increase racial diversity discriminate against Asian Americans.

The college admission policy in Texas holds that if students graduate in the top 10 per cent of their high school class, they earn automatic admission to the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and other state-run institutions. This promotes diversity in the colleges’ entering classes because students at poor, mostly minority, high schools have the same odds of admission as students at wealthy, mostly white, schools.

At the University of Texas at Austin, which admits students through both a modified top-10 track and a standard track with an affirmative action component, the top-10 students are 34 per cent Hispanic, while the standard students are only 20 per cent Hispanic. Nineteen per cent of the top-10 students, but only 7 per cent of the standard students, come from low-income families. When it comes to creating a diverse student body, the top-10 policy has done a better job than has affirmative action.

The top-10 policy has become a model in other states and countries. For instance, France uses a top-10 policy for its universities. And Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, has proposed a similar policy for New York’s elite public high schools.

Some observers worry whether high school class rank is an adequate measure of student ability. The top students from a weak school may not be as capable as middle-of-the-pack students from a strong high school.

However, Texas has been able to maintain quality with its increased diversity. The top-10 students at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, achieve at the same levels as their classmates who are most like the applicants who were denied admission because of the top-10 policy. The top-10 students also graduate at the same rate.

Top-10 policies also address the problem of economic inequality by targeting a key cause: the “economic segregation” of neighbourhoods in the US.

Economic inequality creates highly uneven opportunities for success in life. Children in wealthier communities have much greater chances of upward mobility than children in low-income communities.

And what matters more for children’s professional opportunities is not how rich or poor their families are but how rich or poor their neighbourhoods are. Thus, a poor child living in an economically diverse community has much greater upward mobility than a poor child living in a poor community.

Traditional college admissions policies reward upper-income families for creating exclusive neighbourhoods that have stronger school systems than elsewhere. The higher-quality high schools will more likely be seen as “feeder” schools for top colleges.

But consider what would happen if elite colleges adopt something like the top-10 policy, where the best students from different high schools all have the same odds of acceptance.

If that were true, parents would weaken their children’s chances of admission by creating exclusive communities. Their children’s chances of admission would be greater if they lived in economically integrated communities. Top-10-like policies can turn elite universities from institutions that exacerbate inequality into institutions that foster equality.

Would parents really choose less exclusive communities and lower-performing schools to improve their children’s chances for admission to an elite college? They have in Texas. Studies have shown that many parents select lower-performing schools and live in less prosperous school districts to take advantage of the top-10 policy.

To be sure, the effects on school and residential choice have been modest – in the 5 to 10 per cent range. But that’s because the top-10 policy doesn’t affect an applicant’s chances of admission to a private university or an out-of-state public university. If all elite universities followed the Texas model, the incentives for residential integration would be powerful.

If affluent students move to lower-performing schools, wouldn’t they simply displace their less-affluent peers from the top of the class? That will happen to some degree, but a few aspects are reassuring.

Consider, for example, how top-10 policies affect the performance of students who already attend lower-performing schools. By increasing the chances for admission to an elite university, the policies give the students greater reason to work hard in school. And the students respond by achieving at higher levels.

Other innovative reforms, such as the New Orleans charter school system, have the same impact. When policymakers level the playing field for disadvantaged children, those kids excel in school, too.

Most importantly, colleges can pair the Texas model with affirmative action to realise the benefits of top-10 policies, while also ensuring that their student bodies remain diverse.

A version of this blog originally appeared in The Conversation

David Orentlicher is a professor of law and co-director of the Health Law Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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