Should More States Adopt Texas' 10-percent Rule?

The 10-percent rule—which guarantees state-college admission to top students—may be coming to a state near you. Here's what you need to know about it.

In my last post, I argued that being “qualified” for college often means that one is rich. In effect, the present standard for accepting students to college gives the wealthy a leg up while rather perniciously suggesting that such standards are fair or meritocratic.

Here I offer one part of a solution, and it comes to us from the great states of Texas. But first, a little history. The 1996 case of Hopwood v. University of Texas banned the use of race in admissions decisions at colleges in Texas. This was a major victory for wealthier and white Texans. Minority and poor students perform less well on standardized tests—a major factor in college admissions—and on average they have fewer “qualifications” than wealthier white students. The court demanded that Texas stick to a strict standard that advantaged the rich.

The result of the Hopwood decision was an almost immediate decline in the minority enrollment at Texas colleges. The freshman class at A&M, for instance, went from nearly 15 percent Hispanic to just under 10 percent; over at UT-Austin, black enrollment fell from nearly 5 percent to less than 3 percent.

The Texas legislature sprung into action and in response passed H.B. 588, widely known as the “top ten percent law." It was signed into law by none other than George W. Bush. It guarantees admission to the state college of choice to high school seniors that graduate in the top ten percent of their class. Readers from California and Florida will recognize this kind of plan; others may soon see similar versions of it in their own states.

Part of the reason for the increased popularity of the 10 percent rule is that it creates alliances among political interests that are both rare and powerful. In Texas, banded together were representatives from more conservative rural white districts and more liberal urban minority ones. Both these groups had found that their constituents were being pushed out of positions at top state Universities by the “more qualified” wealthier suburban students. And it's precisely this political alliance that led to the 10 percent rule, which allowed the state to return to its pre-Hopwood diversity levels.

Now comes the hard part of the story. I tricked you. While 10 percent plans are no substitute for economic or racial affirmative action programs, they are still valuable. Here’s why.

First, such plans move the focus for college admissions away from the seemingly fair “qualifications,” which favor the elite, to a far better standard: class standing. I favor this position because many of the things that qualify you for college are in fact very poor predictors of performance. The SAT is a wonderful example. SAT scores are incredibly poor predictors of college performance (they only predict performance in the first semester and even so, only weakly. After that they’re useless). Better than predict college performance, the SAT predicts student wealth.

By contrast, class rank is a better predictor of college performance. This makes sense. Assume that intelligence is randomly distributed across a population. If you’re driven and able enough to beat out your reference group, you’re probably going to do reasonably well in life, even as your reference group changes. And so in creating a move away from policies that explicitly favor the wealthy, such 10 percent rules moves us in the right direction.

The second reason I favor this kind of plan is because of the kind of political alliances we see emerging in Texas. Rather than pit middle class and poor whites against minority students for cherished spots in college, such plans create incentives for alliances between these groups.

Now for the bad news. And there is lots of bad news. First, these plans are often window-dressing. Most of the students accepted through them would have gotten into the colleges they applied to in the first place. Second, for us to believe in their potential to alleviate racial and economic inequality, we have to have given up on residential integration. Such plans only work to improve racial and economic composition of colleges if poorer and minority students live in segregated neighborhoods. Third, they require funding for good public universities (funding which is quickly being decimated). And at the “best” public universities (UC Berkeley and UCLA, come to mind), these policies have little impact on the racial and economic composition of their student bodies. Finally, if we look within communities, those in the top ten percent tend to be the most advantaged. So even though these plans get in kids from disadvantaged areas, it’s rarely the most disadvantaged students who benefit.

Still, given its move away from the kind of criteria that I criticized in my last post and its potential political impact, I believe that such plans are a step in the right direction. The other steps are addressing inequalities before students ever apply for college, minority and poorer student recruitment, financial aid, and addressing college completion rates. And I’ll be sure to address those issues in the weeks to come.

P.S. For those interested in the scholarly evidence, there’s a good report (PDF) on 10 percent programs by scholars at Harvard.

Shamus Khan is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School.

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