This morning, at colleges and universities across the land, professors are emerging from freshman seminars and introductory classes cursing American high schools. “How,” this exasperated chorus asks, “am I supposed to teach students who so thoroughly lack basic reading, writing, math, and study skills?”
Across campus, the chorus gains voices. “How,” the frustrated admissions officers and university lawyers plead, “are we supposed to achieve diversity without preferences, when students’ high school educations are so unequal?”
The professors and administrators have a point: The success of American higher education is contingent on the success of American secondary education. And, in many regards, American secondary education is failing. Despite the heady promises of No Child Left Behind, it’s clear that we’re a long way from providing a decent high school education for every student in America. In fact, after several decades of rising high school graduation rates and declining racial and ethnic educational gaps, much of the news from American public schools is bad. High school dropout rates are once again on the rise; schools are resegregating by race, ethnicity, and economics; and poor, black, and Hispanic students are falling behind in the nation’s schools.
But for all of our grousing, those of us in higher ed tend to sit on the sidelines when it comes time to debate school reform policy. That’s a shame, because we -- the exasperated professors and the frustrated admissions officers alike -- are in a unique position to improve the nation’s high schools.
Texas’s recent educational policy-making history helps to explain how. Texas became a national leader in school reform in the 1980s and early 1990s, adopting standardized testing and school accountability policies that provided a model for the No Child Left Behind Act. But all that changed in 1996 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit banned affirmative action at Texas colleges and universities. The Hopwood decision was discouraging news for minority high school students in Texas, and in the year after the decision, the state’s public high schools slipped on several important indicators of school quality, from student attendance to advanced course taking and college enrollment. Hopwood also threw the state’s educational policy-makers for a loop. In the years that followed the decision, the state put its high school reform program on autopilot as it scrambled to maintain racial and ethnic diversity at its flagship public universities in the post-affirmative action era.
Between the discouraged students and the distracted policy-makers, it sounds like a recipe for educational disaster. But as I demonstrate in a paper  published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Texas high schools posted record numbers just two years after Hopwood. And in the years that followed, those numbers kept climbing.
What happened? The short answer is that Texas’s higher education establishment got involved in the state’s high schools. Worried that black and Hispanic enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M would plummet in the wake of the affirmative action ban, the state created a series of policies designed to clearly articulate higher education standards and broadcast them widely to students across the state.
The best known of these policies was H.B. 588, the Texas top 10 percent law. Passed by the Legislature in 1997, the law guaranteed admission to any in-state public college or university to any student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her Texas high school class. The law was conceived as a racially neutral alternative to affirmative action, designed to use high school racial segregation to build diversity at UT and A&M. But the law had an unexpected effect on the state’s high schools as well. Previously, the criteria for UT and A&M admissions were so complex that high-performing students at high schools where there was little formal or informal college counseling frequently didn’t even bother applying. The top 10 percent law changed that, replacing a confusing admissions system with a simple one, and boosting college application rates from high-poverty and high-minority schools that had frequently sent few applicants. And that’s not all: Under the new admissions regime, advanced course enrollment and student attendance rates also improved at disadvantaged high schools. By clearing the path to college, the top 10 percent law created an academic press in high schools where alienation and demotivation once ruled.
Rather than sit and wait for applications from top-decile students to roll in, UT and A&M launched outreach programs to lure students from high-poverty, inner-city high schools to campus. Beginning in the fall of 1999, both of the flagship universities selected a handful of public high schools in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, and launched intensive recruitment efforts at these high schools. The universities offered high-performing graduates from these schools four-year scholarships and financial aid counseling. Currently 70 high schools participate in UT’s Longhorn Scholarship program and 58 schools participate in A&M’s Century Scholarship program. Both of these programs have been extraordinarily effective tools for recruiting minority students to UT and A&M. But more broadly, they have also had profound effects on selected high schools’ academic cultures. By encouraging high-achievers to reach for elite university admissions, the Longhorn and Century Scholarship fundamentally changed the cultures of targeted high schools. Even the students at these schools who weren’t college bound were more likely to enroll in high-level courses and less likely to be truant after the scholarship program began.
Neither the top 10 percent law nor the Longhorn/Century Scholarships were designed as high school reform programs. But they succeed where many a school reform effort has failed, clearly boosting engagement and achievement, particularly for students at the state’s most disadvantaged high schools. This surprising success speaks to the incredible power that our society has given institutions of higher education. As the social and economic returns to college rise, and the competition for spots in elite institutions intensifies, students and their families are listening carefully for clues about what it takes to get into and succeed in college. By simply clarifying those signals and taking the time to broadcast them to students in disadvantaged high schools, Texas managed to make real improvements in the state’s high schools.
To be clear, the Texas example doesn’t suggest that just any higher ed policy can foment public school reform. Successful initiatives that use higher education opportunities as a lever to improve students’ school performance must be designed with an eye toward clarity. In 2001, the Texas Legislature authorized funding for a merit-based financial aid program loosely modeled on Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, offering students who demonstrate financial need and complete the state’s recommended college prep course sequence up to $2,500 a year in tuition support. The TEXAS Grants program worked about as well as it’s awkward acronym -- the program’s name stands for Toward Excellence, Access, and Success. Although it has proven popular, the TEXAS Grants program has been hampered by complex program eligibility requirements. My research suggests that it moderately boosted student enrollment at Texas’s noncompetitive public four-year universities, but did not have a substantial influence on student engagement in the state’s high schools.
Nonetheless, by finding ways to more clearly link college admissions and financial aid with high school performance, we can – and should – replicate Texas’s successes elsewhere. These higher education policies aren’t a panacea. Improving America’s public schools is a battle that needs to be waged on many fronts. The Texas experience doesn’t give policy-makers an excuse to abandon the effort to expand early childhood education, improve school finance equity, and attract and retain high-quality public school teachers. But it’s time for the exasperated professor and the frustrated university administrator to join the school reform battle.