Saturday, December 16, 2006

10% Is Nothing

One of the more popular "race-neutral" alternatives to Affirmative Action is the so-called "10% plan" adopted by Texas in the wake of the Hopwood decision. In essence, it automatically grants admission to any Texas state university any student who graduates in the top 10% of his or her class. It has effectively mantained diversity at Texas Universities--mostly because there are enough heavily segregated schools where nearly all of the student body (and thus, the top 10% as well) is Black.

However, as Ilya Somin powerfully demonstrates, 10% plans are worse in nearly every possible respect than traditional affirmative action plans--even hard quotas. Traditional affirmative action rarely accounts for more than 20-25% of any entering class. But at the University of Texas' flagship campus, a full 71% of the class is comprised of top 10%ers. That gives almost no flexibility to admissions directors to try and find balance, admitting students who attended more rigorous schools but were not in the top 10%, or have special talents or experiences that aren't manifested in a GPA.

Somin continues:
To be sure, this result could happen with traditional racial preferences as well. However, the ten percent plan affects a great many more admissions decisions than even the most rigid old-style affirmative action systems do. Rarely, if ever, do traditional affirmative action plans determine the admission of more than 15-20% of a school's student body. By contrast, at the University of Texas at Austin, over 70% of the student body was admitted under the ten percent plan. While some of these students would surely have gotten in anyway, it is highly likely that the ten percent plan leads to much larger sacrifices of academic merit than do racial preferences similar to those used at most other academic institutions.

Second, and probably much worse, the article notes that the formula creates perverse incentives for students to try to game the system by transferring to weaker schools or taking easier classes. While neither the article nor other evidence I have seen provides precise data on the numbers of students who do this, the effect may well be large. When I lived in Texas in 2001-2002, I met quite a few people with high school-age children who had switched to weaker schools in order to take advantage of the plan, or were considering doing so. Obviously, there is no similar perverse incentive created by traditional affirmative action. With a system of racial quotas or "plus factors," both white and minority high school students still have incentives to go to strong schools, in order to maximize their college admissions chances.

Third, the tradeoffs inherent in the ten percent plan are less transparent to both students and the general public than those involved in racial quotas. As a result, it is more likely that harmful effects will remain unmonitored and undetected. If public universities are going to strive for racial diversity, the costs and benefits of doing so should be as transparent as possible.

Finally, the ten percent plan also has the effect of disadvantaging high-achieving minority students who go to strong schools and - in part for that reason - fall short of the top ten percent in their class. Not only are these students disfavored relative to minority students attending weaker schools, they are also disfavored compared to whites in weaker schools as well.

I've noticed this dynamic in situations outside of the "10% plan." When debating the merits of the Louisville and Seattle plans, one thing that impressed me about all the "race-neutral" alternatives is that they all seemed to worsen the negative aspects of affirmative actions. Students would have to travel even further, academic standards would become less relevant, assignment would have no bearing on any remotely meritorious characteristic and would often be completely random. The only advantage was that they didn't "use" race--but yet, everyone knew they were an end-around for racial diversity as well! It's incoherent.

Of course, one could say that 10% plans have the advantage of not explicitly race-based, which might excuse them under a pure "color-blind" view. Yet, as Somin notes, you would then have to excuse not "explicitly race-based" efforts by the Jim Crow South to preserve racial hierarchy (of which there were many).

In the end, if we're going to pursue racial integration in the schools, we might as well be overt about it. It's not just more honest--it also works better for all concerned.


The probligo said...

Even if there is "racial equality" in education, there is no guarantee that it will provide "equality of education".

(This is a hobby horse of mine so the short version).

NZ uses a "decile indicator" based upon the "socio-economics of the school's community". Hence the highschool my kids went to is a "Decile 10" school as it draws from an affluent community. Fifteen km down the road the equivalent highschool is rated "Decile 1".

Our local college has no problem with the standard and qualifications of teachers. Class sizes are between 25 to 35.

The highschool in Otara has about 20% of its allowed teacher positions vacant (last time I heard they were short 4 teaching and 2 non-teaching positions in an approved staff of 25), is paying up to 20% higher than the market for lower qualified teachers, and has class sizes up to 25% higher than Howick.

Do you really think that the Otara kids get the equivalent education to those in Howick?

Anonymous said...

Racism is no longer the most important issue for the black community.

Today something else is more threatening to the future of black babies born every day.

I started a blog to discuss my views, and see who agrees with me.

Anonymous said...

I think these posts miss the point of 10% plans -which is choosing students based on potential rather than acheivement. See, in using 10% plans one is looking, not for the students who have acheived the greatest things (often with high parental and school imput), but rather the students who have made the best of the opportunities that they have been given across the board. It is hoped that, once such students have more opportunities they will make the most of these as well. It's like the track coach who, given two students who can run the same time, chooses the one with the worse form, because that's the one he can teach proper form to, and therefore improve his time.

Yes, one unintended consequence of 10% programs is that high schools may become more economically and racially integrated as advantaged students try to game the system. Is that really a 'problem', or just a different benefit? If the 10% programs lead to people choosing to integrate schools and neighborhoods, that might be a problem for college admission programs which are seeking to create diversity on campus. However, on a broader social level, what a great acheivement!

As for the impact on minority students from high performing high schools, if everyone were adopting 10% plans that would be a concern. In reality, that isn't happening. Having a variety of different admission systems gives opportunities to more students. The 10% admits some who would have been excluded elsewhere.