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Equity in College Admissions

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The Wall Street Journal calls the University of California System’s decision to eliminate the SAT and ACT in admissions “a historic blow to excellence in higher education,” and declares that the regents have “put racial politics above merit.”

The reader comments are even harsher. “What next?” writes one reader. “Will Olympic time trials be replaced by coaches’ recommendations, essays, and interviews?”

Before we decry the purported retreat from merit, we might look at a time-tested strategy for increasing equity and inclusion used elsewhere.

It looks to me like the University of California System is inching toward a version of Texas’s 10 Percent Plan, even if UC isn’t saying so.  

Currently, the Texas plan admits roughly 7 percent of the top performing public high school students into UT Austin, based on class rank.  These students make up about 3/4s of the entering class, with the other quarter admitted using a holistic evaluation.  

Weirdly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the 10 Percent Plan produces more racial and ethnic diversity than from the holistic admissions process.

The effect of the 10 Percent Plan has been to dramatically increase enrollment not only of students from underrepresented groups, but rural students — which is why the plan succeeded politically.  

The plan has also had the positive side effect of boosting the qualifications of students at Texas’ other colleges and universities.  

Note that the Texas plan is coupled with a cap on the proportion of out-of-state students.  

I find the main criticisms of the plan — that it reinforces geographic segregation or incentivizes ambitious students to enroll in under-resourced schools — disingenuous.  It strikes me as a sensible way to balance merit, access, diversity, and inclusion.

Another critique is that the plan overemphasizes GPA and fails to take sufficient account of other indicators of aptitude and achievement, making it more difficult to craft an entering class with a diversity of talents and breadth of interests.  But a quarter of the class is admitted on a basis other than class rank, which gives a great deal of flexibility to admissions officers.

The most powerful objections are that the 10 Percent Plan failed to expand the number of high schools that consistently send students to UT and didn’t significantly increase the number of African American students or to increase the number of Latinx students proportional to their share of the college-aged population.

The explanation, I suspect, is two-fold, involving money and campus culture.

Without aggressive recruitment, which also includes making prospective students aware of the availability of financial aid, even a plan like Texas’s will only have a limited impact.

Supplementing the 10 Percent Plan are tiered and scaled layers of support, including the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan (TIP), which identifies that quarter of the class least likely to graduate and provides those students with peer mentoring, learning communities, and supplemental instruction; the University Leadership Network, a scholarship and professional development program that serves 500 economically disadvantaged students; and a Freshman Research Initiative in the natural sciences that serves a thousand students in 30 different research streams.  

Each of these programs is designed to foster a sense of belonging and a growth and success-oriented mindset.

Whatever its weaknesses and limitations, the 10 Percent Plan demonstrates that talent is widespread and that gifted students flourish when given the opportunity and appropriate support, Precisely because the plan rests on a widely recognized measure of student achievement, it has succeeded in gaining a level of legitimacy that more subjective approaches to admissions do not.

An attempt to implement something like the 10 Percent Plan for admission into New York City’s elite high schools – which currently rests on a single standardized test — produced such an outcry that the Mayor backed away from the plan.  Instead, the de Blasio administration increased the number of seats to 20 percent that are reserved for students from low-income families that scored just below the admissions cut-off and attend a summer prep program. 

However, just 35 percent of those in the summer prep program are African American and Latinx, in a K-12 system in which they make up almost 70 percent of the student population.  Still, the Mayor found a less controversial and more broadly acceptable way to achieve his policy goal of promoting greater diversity.

In New York City, admission to the specialized high schools was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a zero-sum game, given the city’s failure to increase the number of selective high schools.

Achieving equity and inclusion in a diverse society hinges on admissions measures that are widely regarded as legitimate.  These also depend on having sufficient numbers of spaces at institutions that are regarded as roughly equivalent.  

Part of the furor over the Varsity Blues scandal and controversy over affirmative action within the Ivy League is that the elite private schools artificially limited the number of seats and have run an opaque, highly unpredictable admissions process.  Although the number of highly selective, well-endowed institutions has increased, and enrollment at state flagships has risen somewhat, the number of talented applicants far outstrips supply.

There are several paths forward.  In recent years, many broad access regional and urban campuses have instituted honors programs to provide gifted students with an experience that combines the mentoring, seminars, and co-curricular activities of a liberal arts college with the resources of a large university. Another is to identify a niche and identity in which a campus can achieve a reputation for distinction (for example, the University of Minnesota Rochester’s collaboration with the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences or UT Dallas’s growing reputation in STEM).

Among the tragedies likely to grow out of the pandemic is that an important option will fade.  Many small institutions that offer an education of the highest caliber will face financial pressures that will diminish their quality and appeal for years to come. 

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Friday, December 18, 2020
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Friday, December 18, 2020