In judging the affirmative action program in Fisher v. University of Texas, an important question is the extent to which the Texas legislature's “ten percent” policy provides an effective race-neutral strategy for promoting diversity in the UT student body.
Under the Texas policy, the state's public undergraduate institutions admit all applicants whose grade point averages are in the top ten percent of their high schools’ graduating classes. (UT-Austin can limit top ten percent admissions to 75 percent of its entering class.) If colleges draw from the top ten percent at all high schools, their entering classes could mirror the ethnic and racial diversity of the high schools' students.
As I’ve written before, the Texas policy may be even more valuable in the incentive it provides for improving the educational quality of public high schools. Consider the potential impact if there were wider use of high class rank admissions policies.
Traditional standards for admission to college encourage wealthier parents to prefer a two-tiered system of high schools in which their children can attend the stronger schools. When students attend higher quality schools, they receive a better education. In addition, they do better in the college application process. A student in the top twenty percent of a strong high school often will be viewed as a stronger candidate than a student in the top five percent or even top one percent of a weaker school.
If every selective U.S. college were to give equal consideration to the top students from all high schools, students attending the "stronger" schools suddenly would lose their advantage in the admissions process. Students finishing in the top ten percent at a weaker school would have better college options than students finishing just below the top ten percent at a stronger school. Parents would recognize that they could enhance their children’s future academic prospects by placing their children in schools where they were more likely to finish in the top of their class rank. (Ivy League and other elite schools would need to cut off admissions at the top five or one percent of high school class rank.)
If parents adjusted their choices of schools, the wealthier and more influential among them would spread their wealth and political influence over a wider range of schools. Once their children were attending one of the "weaker" schools, the parents would push for improvements in the quality of the school. The upper and middle socioeconomic classes might still focus their attention on the schools that their children attend, but the number of such schools would have increased. The gap in quality between the top schools and the bottom schools would narrow, and school quality would become more uniformly high.
Would parents really send their children to “weaker” schools to take advantage of high class rank admissions policies? They already have in Texas. After the ten percent policy was adopted, many parents moved their children to schools with lower levels of achievement by the student body. The effects would be even greater if Ivy League and other elite universities followed the Texas model. (The ten percent policy also has had an impact on property values as families moved into neighborhoods with lower-performing schools.)
Shouldn't universities be able to take into account considerations other than class rank? That would be fine as long as when they admitted students on the basis of other criteria, they spread those admissions broadly across different high schools. Thus, for example, if students were accepted because of strong artistic, athletic, or musical ability, the colleges should ensure that they gave equal consideration to the top artists, athletes, and musicians at all high schools.
In addition to changing incentives for parents, the ten percent has changed incentives for universities. As Lani Guinier has observed, universities have a greater stake in the quality of all public high schools and therefore a greater interest in supporting efforts to improve school quality.
In sum, the Texas ten percent policy has considerable potential as a model because it establishes an important link between the fortunes of the well-to-do and the less fortunate in society. Just as Medicare is a better program than Medicaid because it serves everyone rather than just the poor, so are schools stronger if they serve everyone rather than just the poor.