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Students at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The school has made steady progress in increasing diversity on campus. Enrollment of underrepresented minorities has climbed from 12 percent in 2002 to roughly 27 percent this year.
Texas’s policy to automatically admit the top students in each high school to the state’s flagship universities didn’t expand the number of high schools that send students to Texas A&M University, College Station, pictured here. Credit: © Allen Holder/TNS/

One proposal to boost the number of black and Latino students in elite schools is to cream the top students from every neighborhood or community, rather than admitting only the top students on a national or statewide yardstick. That way the brightest Latino students in a predominantly Latino school, for example, can get a shot at a coveted slot that they otherwise might not get. Bill de Blasio, New York City mayor and Democratic presidential candidate, has floated this idea for diversifying his city’s elite high schools.

But the state of Texas provides a cautionary lesson for how much this sort of well-intended reform can accomplish. Research is showing that a policy that takes the top students from the state’s high schools didn’t increase diversity in Texas’s elite universities or increase the number of high schools that feed them.

Beginning in 1998, Texas guaranteed admission to its most selective public universities to any student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her high school. The goal was to find a way to increase the enrollment of black and Latino students after a federal court banned race-based affirmative action in the state.

The plan was controversial from the start with many complaining that it would deny high-achieving students admission to the state’s top two schools, the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and Texas A&M University, College Station. But a new analysis of 20 years of data finds that the 10 percent policy did little to expand access to students from high schools without a tradition of regularly sending students to those universities.

Related: Black students are drastically underrepresented at top public colleges, data show

“We found that high schools were just as likely to send students to the flagships after the policy as they were before,” said Daniel Klasik, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is true whether we consider just the first five years of the top 10 percent plan or our entire 18 years of post-policy data.”

The study, co-authored by Klasik and Kalena Cortes, an economist at Texas A&M University, College Station, was presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in Toronto in April 2019.  It is still a draft working paper, which means it may still be revised before publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

According to the researchers’ calculations, 45 percent of Texas’s 1,700 public high schools never sent students to UT Austin and Texas A&M, College Station, in the years before the 10 percent program. After the policy change, only 7 of these 775 “never” high schools consistently sent any students to these two flagships. Nearly half never sent a single student to either flagship in the 18 years between 1998 and 2016. The remainder of these “never” schools occasionally had a student or two enroll in a flagship. But these occasional instances didn’t add up to much of a track record.

In other words, the higher income high schools that originally funneled kids to Texas’s flagships continued to be the main suppliers of students. The top 10 percent policy failed to change that.

Related: Is there a trade-off between racial diversity and academic excellence in gifted classrooms?

This helps explain why the top 10 percent policy hasn’t boosted access for blacks and Latinos at Texas’s flagship schools. The raw number of Latino students has grown and the number of black students has fallen slightly. But once you factor in how the Latino population has increased overall in Texas, the number of Latino students at Texas’s flagships hasn’t kept pace. Today, Latino students make up 21 percent and black students make up 4 percent of UT Austin. But their share of the college-age population is 47 percent and 11 percent, respectively. (Because of UT Austin’s popularity, the threshold for automatic admission has been raised over time. A student now needs to be in the top 6 percent of her high school class.)

Thousands of high-achieving students have an automatic seat at a flagship but aren’t taking them. Why? Klasik and Cortes didn’t answer that question in this paper. And the scholars admit it’s difficult to understand why so many students aren’t applying and taking advantage of this opportunity. Cortes says many of these top students are going to college and paying similar tuition to another public institution in Texas. So she doesn’t think cost is the barrier.

Lack of academic preparation doesn’t explain it either. Cortes’s previous research found that many of these students had high SAT or ACT scores and could clearly handle the rigor of a top college. (Interestingly, her research has shown that a high-income student with low test scores is much more likely to take advantage of the opportunity to go to a flagship than a low-income student with low test scores. Low-income students are more likely to rule prestigious institution out.)

Related: Minorities are now the majority at UT-Austin

One thing Cortes and Klasik noticed in this study was that extra recruitment efforts at underrepresented high schools, combined with a small amount of scholarship funds, increased the likelihood that a high school would start sending its top students to the flagships by double digits. Texas A&M operates a Century Scholars Program and the University of Texas had a similar at Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship, which was replaced by the Discovery Scholars Program in 2013.  The targeted high schools that received the extra outreach were 13 percent more likely to send students to Texas A&M and 17 percent more likely to send students to UT Austin, the researchers found.

For the flagships, the lesson from this study is that the effort to visit remote and unfamiliar high schools can pay off. For high school guidance counselors, the researchers say the lesson is that high achieving kids need more support. More time needs to be spent explaining the importance of going to a flagship university and what it can mean to a student’s future.  “We take it for granted,” said Cortes. “But many of these students have no idea what the difference is between the different campuses.”

The bottom line is that a top 10 percent plan, on its own, doesn’t always change things.

This story about the Texas top ten percent plan was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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