More US states to automatically enrol top performers in college

After Supreme Court ruling on race-based admissions, top 10 per cent plans find new interest but doubts persist about underlying motives

September 26, 2023
A doorman works in front of a landmark building to illustrate More US states to automatically enrol high schools’ top graduates in college
Source: Getty images

US public universities are expanding their embrace of a system that automatically admits top performers in each high school in their states, despite concerns that it might do more for image and enrolment than equity.

The idea is best known from a 25-year-old version in Texas, which initially gave any student with grades in the top 10 per cent of their high school class guaranteed admission to any four-year public institution in the state.

A chief stated goal is to widen opportunities for lower-income students, given that the US system of locally funded schools produces wide inequities in educational quality.

The approach has not been widely embraced across the US, although California and Florida have versions, and two more states – South Carolina and Tennessee – have adopted the system in recent weeks. Whereas Texas later changed its eligibility cut-off to the top 6 per cent of each high school, the South Carolina and Tennessee versions generally would apply to the top 10 per cent.

Texas officials talked at their programme’s inception in 1997 of reducing racial and ethnic segregation between their high schools. They acted in part because of a federal court ruling at the time against the use of race in admissions locally, and the US Supreme Court ruling this summer against the practice nationwide has prompted predictions that percentage-based plans could get a new boost.

Analyses of the Texas programme, however, have suggested that it might have boosted enrolment but did little to improve equity, as wealthier high schools continued to be over-represented at top public campuses in Texas.

“The purported high school representation benefits of the policy appear to be overstated,” concluded a 2020 study of the Texas system by Kalena Cortes, a professor of public policy at Texas A&M University, and Daniel Klasik, an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And even with the programme producing limited gains for equity, Texas officials came under political pressure to scale it back – lowering the threshold to 7 per cent and then, in 2017, to 6 per cent.

That pressure, said Robert Kelchen, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, came from the relatively small number of parents in better-off school districts who perceived a tougher environment for their children to gain entry to the state’s top public institutions.

“Just too many families from wealthy suburban districts were watching their kids not get in,” Professor Kelchen said.

If universities were looking to help low-income and first-generation students, Dr Klasik said, they had options that appeared more valuable than a percentage-based admissions policy. That was because the top-tier students at rural and lower-performing high schools were not generally concerned about their ability to win a place at their state universities, he said. “Rather,” he explained, “I suspect that students are worried about things like their ability to afford to attend college, or about their ability to fit in and succeed.”

For that, Dr Klasik said, the more appropriate solutions included targeted recruitment efforts and stronger commitments to financial aid.

Professor Kelchen said percentage programmes continued to have value for universities, helping to boost enrolments and signalling to the community their civic mindedness and approachability. “I think that’s a piece of it,” Professor Kelchen said. “It’s a reminder that these institutions are actually accessible statewide.”

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