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Texas’ Ten Percent Solution: Good News or Bad News for Minorities?

- March 31, 2008

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bq. The Texas legislature passed the Top 10% Law in 1996 guaranteeing automatic admission to any Texas public college or university for seniors who graduated in the top decile of their high school class. Using data on a representative sample of seniors (N = 12,029) enrolled in 96 Texas public high schools, we examine whether and how this law affects the educational aspirations and expectations of graduating seniors, as well as whether they apply to college. Hierarchical generalized linear models demonstrate that the knowledge of a percent plan has played an important role in raising the sights of students who might not otherwise consider college. This effect is particularly pronounced for minority students, although peer, family and high school context play pivotal roles.

That’s the abstract of a new study by Kim M. Lloyd, Kevin T. Leicht, and Teresa A. Sullivan (“Minority College Aspirations, Expectations and Applications under the Texas Top 10% Law,” Social Forces, March 2008).

So the law is having a beneficial effects, right? Well, maybe or maybe not. It depends on how you go about measuring success. For example, in a 2003 study (here) of before-and-after admissions patterns at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, Brian Bucks concluded that:

bq. Proponents of percent plans have pointed to the comparable percentages of minorities entering UT–Austin in say 1996 (under affirmative action) and in 1999 (under the Ten Percent Plan) as evidence that such measures are similarly effective in promoting campus diversity. This paper, however, suggests a more cautious interpretation of the success of the Ten Percent Plan. First, it appears that the Ten Percent Plan and institutional responses to the Hopwood decision have had varying success in restoring black and Hispanic enrollment at Texas’ flagship campuses. Diversity at UT–Austin is at or below pre-Hopwood levels, depending on the standard used, and minority representation at Texas A&M remains below its peak shortly before the court decision. Moreover, aggressive recruiting and financial aid efforts may explain a larger portion of any improvements in minority representation than changes in students’ admissions probabilities.

bq. …[T]he fraction of black and Hispanic high school graduates in the state has grown over the period. Accounting for this fact in examining students’ college choices reveals that minorities—and particularly those with high college entrance exam scores—are now less likely than whites with comparable SAT scores to enroll at a selective Texas public university. Certainly one of the functions of a public university system, in particular, is to serve that state’s high school graduates, and this notion underlies the philosophy of the Ten Percent Plan itself. From this perspective, however, with an increasingly diverse population of high school graduates, the Ten Percent Plan has reduced minority graduates’ access to the state’s most selective universities by failing to even maintain the ethnic composition of pre-Hopwood classes at the flagships.

Moreover, in a 2006 study (“Capitalizing on Segregation, Pretending Neutrality: College Admissions and the Texas Top 10% Law,” American Law and Economics Review), Marta Tienda and Sunny Xinchun Niu found that the Top 10% Law was working to the disadvantage of minority students who graduated from racially integrated high schools:

bq. We show that high levels of residential and school segregation facilitate minority enrollment at selective public institutions under the uniform admission law because black and Hispanic students who rank at the top of their class disproportionately hail from minority-dominant schools. However, qualifying minority students’ lower likelihood of college enrollment at the flagships reflects concentrated disadvantage rather than segregation per se.

So has the Top 10% Law been a Ten Percent Solution? The answer, it seems, is that the law’s effects, some of which would have been hard to anticipate, have been complex and cross-cutting. Here again, then, eliminating racial and ethnic inequalities in access to higher education has proven to be a problem that simply doesn’t lend itself to an easy, formulaic solution.

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