The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
The big idea
A 22-year-old Texas initiative – meant to broaden the pool of high schools whose graduates attend public universities after affirmative action was banned – has made little difference in who enrolls at Texas’ two flagship public universities, according to our new research.
The Texas Top 10% Plan guarantees college admission to any four-year public Texas institution for students who graduate in the top 10% of their high school class. Our recent study, currently undergoing peer review, found that in high schools with no history of sending students to Texas A&M or the University of Texas at Austin, only about half sent a student to either flagship campus in the five-year period after the plan started in 1998.
However, there was some progress at certain types of high schools. Rural high schools in Texas were about 8 percentage points more likely to send students to the flagship campuses after the policy started than they were before. Also, students who attended high schools designated for special scholarships established in line with the Top 10% Plan were more likely to attend the flagship campuses.
And even though the absolute percentage of Black and Hispanic students increased by 1.6 percentage points at the flagship campuses four years after the Top 10% plan started, research has shown that these gains were more closely related to demographic changes in the state, rather than the effectiveness of the plan itself.
Why it matters
The Texas Top 10% Plan was established in the wake of Texas’ 1996 ban on race-conscious affirmative action in higher education.
Black and Hispanic student representation on the flagship campuses fell from 18.1% in the year before the ban to 13.4% in the year after. One main goal of the plan was to recover this lost diversity in a “race-neutral” way.
The initial appeal of the Top 10% Plan stems from its simplicity. All students would be admitted to the state’s public colleges based on the same criterion: namely, class rank. Since the policy doesn’t take a student’s high school or test scores into account, the idea was that it would become easier for students from all schools – even those that don’t have a history of regularly sending students to the state’s flagship campuses – to get in.
In addition to the goal of recovering the racial diversity lost after affirmative action ended in Texas, policymakers hoped that the Top 10% Plan would open Texas’ public universities – and in particular flagship campuses – to more students from high schools around the state in terms of geographical diversity. Prior to the policy, the majority of students who attended the flagships came from a handful of high schools in the state.
Our study suggests that, much like the racial and ethnic diversity goal, the geographical diversity goal was not met, either, at least in the case of the two selective flagship campuses.
What still isn’t known
While our study focuses on gaining access to the selective Texas flagship campuses, it is possible that the Top 10% Plan increased the geographical diversity of high schools that sent students to the nonflagship campuses. Given that students often prefer to enroll in colleges closer to home, students living farther away from the flagship locations may have instead used the Top 10% Plan to go to four-year Texas colleges that were closer to where they reside.
That said, attendance at the flagship campuses is important because the financial resources that these campuses provide often result in more students graduating. Also, perhaps more importantly, flagship graduates, on average, earn more than students who don’t attend flagships. For these reasons, making the state’s flagship institutions more accessible is an important part of opening opportunities for social mobility.
Kalena E. Cortes, Associate Professor, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University and Daniel Klasik, Assistant Professor of Educational Policy, Organization, & Leadership, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill