Strategic Displacement

Under “10 percent plan” in Texas, some switched high schools to get into top colleges. White students gained and minority students lost.
January 11, 2011

One of the most novel ideas of college admissions in recent decades has been the “10 percent plan” in Texas. And research released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that some students figured out how to game the system to get into a flagship -- and that the net result of this activity was to help white students at the expense of minority students.

In response to a federal appeals court’s order barring public colleges and universities from considering race in admissions, the state adopted a rule granting automatic admission to any university -- including the highly competitive flagships of the University of Texas and Texas A&M University -- to anyone who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class. The idea was that Texas has many high schools that are almost entirely black or Latino -- and so could be assured of enrolling a critical mass of black and Latino students at top universities without considering race.

While Texas in 2009 modified the plan, the basic concept remains in place -- and has been copied in several other states looking for race-neutral ways to diversify student bodies at competitive universities. From the start, one of the questions about these plans was whether they created the right incentives for schools, students and families. Students just below the top 10 percent at competitive high schools complained from the beginning that they were being displaced by students who were in the top 10 percent elsewhere but who may not have been as well-prepared for college.

The new NBER study shows that some of those students did something about it -- and moved to less competitive high schools where they could be in the top 10 percent. And generally, this movement displaced minority students from getting automatic admission under the 10 percent rule.
The study, conducted by Julie Berry Cullen of the University of California at San Diego, Mark C. Long of the University of Washington, and Randall Reback of Barnard College, analyzed cohorts of students who were approaching college admissions before and after the 10 percent plan took effect. It found significant shifts in patterns among students who stood to benefit from being in less competitive high schools. These patterns run counter to the usual tendency of families to try to get their children into the best high schools possible.

A variety of factors obviously influence the choices of students and families about which high schools to attend, and the authors acknowledge that it is possible that some of the school switches had other causes. But identifying those students with “motive and opportunity” -- those who were likely to fall below the 10 percent in competitive high schools but were strong enough students that they would be in the top 10 percent in weaker high schools in which they could enroll -- the scholars estimate that 25 percent or more of students moved to new high schools for "strategic" reasons.

Generally, the movement was from magnet schools to less competitive local schools, where the grade-point average to be in the top 10 percent was lower and/or the students moving could earn better grades.

The authors found that though both white and minority students engaged in “strategic” high school selection, white students benefited and minority students lost. The reason is that whether it is white or minority students transferred into the lesser high school, those at the high school who were pushed out of the top 10 percent were almost always minority students. Virtually no white students lost slots as a result of these choices.

The study does not suggest that its findings negate the positive impacts of the 10 percent plan on promoting racial diversity. But the authors write that those who create such plans need to consider all of the incentives they create -- including incentives that may favor some groups over others.


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