‘Top per cent’ admissions programmes found to boost equity

Research suggests women particularly benefit from schemes that guarantee admission to highest-achieving school leavers

June 18, 2024
Crumpled tape measure
Source: iStock

Guaranteeing university places for the top graduates of each high school in a state or region can improve equity, especially with regard to gender, an analysis covering thousands of students in Chile has found.

The approach also appeared to the study’s authors as helpful to those who do not go to college, perhaps by reducing the job market competition they would otherwise face from high-aptitude peers denied university access by discriminatory exclusions.

The so-called “top per cent” admissions programmes have been tried in various places, including several US states, often garnering mixed assessments of their long-term effectiveness. A decades-old version in Texas has been found to boost enrolment from some regions of the state but to then struggle to persistently improve equity because wealthier communities continue to be over-represented at the state’s top public campuses.

The authors of the Chile study – from Harvard University, UCL and the Bank of Italy – said that in trying to better answer such questions, they chose the South American country for reasons that include its relatively detailed level of record-keeping.

Chile also affords an important testing ground because its nationwide programme is relatively ambitious, affording college admissions advantages to the top 15 per cent of students at each participating high school, and because of the wide variation in the quality of its school system.

Their analysis, involving Chilean students finishing high school in 2016, was published ahead of formal peer review by the US National Bureau of Economic Research.

The authors affirm in Chile some of the same big-picture benefits and drawbacks that have been found elsewhere. One example is that Chilean students who were given the chance to attend college as a result of the programme, but were ranked at the lower end of the eligibility criteria, experienced relatively high dropout rates and comparatively poor career outcomes.

Women, however, were a chief exception, consistently faring better in their careers as a result of getting the college experience that they otherwise would not have had, the authors say.

The high school students left behind by the programme of expanded admissions also seem to benefit in their careers, perhaps finding easier competition for jobs that generally do not require college degrees, the authors say.

Overall, the authors say, the data from Chile suggests both that the percentage-based eligibility could be narrowed, and that the students admitted at lower qualification levels should get better guidance.

The programmes in US states have made some adjustment along those lines, mostly on restricting eligibility. Texas has reduced its original 10 per cent cut-off level to as low as 6 per cent in some cases, and both Texas and California have added eligibility conditions tied to school coursework requirements.

Those kinds of tweaks may make sense, especially with the added student assistance, according to the authors of the Chile study – Michela Tincani, associate professor of economics at UCL; Michela Carlana, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard; and Enrico Miglino, research fellow in law and economics at the Bank of Italy.

“Personalised orientation sessions,” they said in response to questions about their work, “could help high school students identify the programmes where they are most likely to flourish.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles