Texas legislators may be on the verge of changing one of the most notable admissions experiments in recent years: a state law  requiring that all public colleges and universities automatically admit all of those who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.
The focus of lawmakers -- particularly those advocating a change -- has been the difficulty the law places on the University of Texas at Austin. As the most competitive institution in the state, it is highly attractive to anyone eligible to earn admission, and UT leaders say that they are filling such a large share of admissions slots through the so-called 10 percent program that they have lost flexibility and, with it, the ability to admit highly talented students who don’t earn automatic admission. Defenders of the law tend to focus on its impact increasing minority enrollments.
Two new studies suggest both positive and negative impacts of the law that have received relatively less attention in the debate. The studies are scheduled to be released next Friday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
One focuses on the high schools that send students to UT -- and finds that the law has led to much broader representation, effectively halting what had been a growing pattern in which a small number of wealthy high schools were increasingly dominating admissions. Not only has the overall number of high schools sending students to Austin increased since the 10 percent program, but the law appears to have shifted high school students’ decisions. At many high schools before the law took effect, those who would have almost certainly been admitted never bothered to apply -- and the law appears to have changed that, the research has found.
A second study could be used to argue against the 10 percent law -- or at least the way it has been carried out at UT-Austin. This study finds that, as the 10 percent law made it more difficult for some applicants to win admission, an increasing number of these rejected applicants used a program allowing transfer from other UT campuses. And as these transfers grew, transfers from community colleges fell. The finding is significant because so many low-income and minority students start their higher education at two-year institutions.
The authors of the studies -- noting the speed with which Texas legislators appear to be moving to change 10 percent  -- released them to Inside Higher Ed in advance of their formal presentation in the hope that their findings might inform the debate.
The 10 percent law was adopted in 1997, following a federal appeals court’s ban on the consideration of race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. The law was immediately popular (with bipartisan support). Because so many Texas high schools have ethnically homogeneous student bodies (whether white, black or Latino), the law ensured that healthy numbers from all groups would be eligible to enroll at Austin. When in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of affirmative action in college admissions, UT started to again consider race and ethnicity in admissions, and opposition to the law started to grow. Among the more vocal opponents have been families and legislators in wealthier parts of the state, which support high quality public schools where (these critics say) very well qualified students in the 11th percentile (or further down) are losing a shot at getting to Austin.
From High School to the Flagship
One of the papers focuses on the issue of which high schools send students to UT. Mark C. Long of the University of Washington, Victor B. Saenz of the University of Texas at Austin, and Marta Tienda of Princeton University analyzed 18 years' worth of data on which high schools sent students to UT, and they found significant shifts beyond the issues of race and ethnicity that tend to dominate discussion of 10 percent.
They start by documenting evidence from prior studies about the role of “feeder” high schools -- those that send a disproportionate share of students to Austin. One part of the research noted that in 1996, just before the law was adopted, 59 high schools accounted for half of UT’s freshman class. (There are more than 1,500 high schools in Texas.) By 2006, there were 104 high schools whose students made up half of the freshman class -- by no means an even distribution, but much more than was the case prior to 10 percent.
The total number of high schools sending at least one student to UT-Austin went up dramatically as this shift was taking place. In 1996, the study notes that UT admitted students from 674 high schools. By 2007, that figure was more than 900. The new high schools were more likely than those previously sending students to have large concentrations of minority students and low-income students (minority and white), to be in rural areas, or small towns and cities. Notably, the researchers found that once high schools experienced success in getting students admitted, they tended to continue to do so.
A key question in the debate over 10 percent is whether the more diverse student pool would continue without the law in its current form. Here, the research team offers evidence to suggest that there are key factors to the law itself -- especially its straightforward nature -- that contribute to its success. The researchers note that, prior to the 10 percent law, nearly all applicants in the top 10 percent of high school classes were admitted, but at high schools whose students have not flocked to UT until recently, very few of these students bothered to apply, pre-10 percent.
“Presumably, many seniors who ranked highly in their class failed to apply because of the opaqueness of UT's admissions policy; as is the case at most institutions, students have no way of knowing whether they qualify for admission or the likelihood of being admitted. This opaqueness would be acute for students at high schools with low sending rates to UT -- a student at such a high school would not have the experience of seeing their older peers' application results,” the draft report on the study says.
“Thus, the apparent increases in access may be due, in part, to the rendering of an opaque de facto policy that admitted nearly all top 10% students to a transparent de jure policy that clearly stipulated the criteria for automatic admission. Not only did this change in admission policy influence the number of admitted and enrolled students to UT, but it also diversified their geographic and socioeconomic origins.”
From Community Colleges to the Flagship
The paper on community colleges notes that for many students, especially low income or minority students, there has never been a great direct path to the flagship university, and transfer has long been viewed as a good option. The paper -- by Rose M. Martinez, a doctoral candidate at UT-Austin, explores what may be an "unintended consequence" of the 10 percent law: reduced transfers from community colleges.
Some applicants who are rejected for admission to UT-Austin are given the option through the Conditional Admission Program (known as CAP) of signing a contract to enroll at another UT campus and to meet certain goals, upon which they will earn a slot at Austin. Others transfer from community colleges. Martinez's study found that prior to the 10 percent law, community college transfer was the more common route in, but that since adoption of 10 percent the reverse is true. This is significant because that program caters to those who feel they were denied a shot at UT, possibly by those being admitted by the 10 percent law.
"While well intentioned, students qualifying for automatic admission are indirectly crowding out community college students at a highly ranked flagship university in a state where too few top ranked institutions exist," says a draft of Martinez's paper.
"Texas has 50 community college districts and 74 community college campuses. Yet, community college students averaged 30.3 percent or 626 students of the fall transfer cohort from 2004-8. If left unchanged, the transfer program may be overrun with CAP students, who are wholly comprised of non-top 10 percent freshman applicants. If so, it begs the question of whether the flagship university can recruit a diverse pool of transfer students or if CAP serves as a subliminal form of cascading of selective freshman applicants."