Talented tenth

As an alternative to racial and ethnic preferences, the public universities in Texas now admit the top 10 percent of students at each high school. Racial and ethnic diversity is higher than before the court decision throwing out preferences, and many more high schools are sending students to UT. But some families are complaining bitterly: Very good students at high-achieving schools can’t get into UT-Austin because so many places are taken by kids in the top 10 percent of low-achieving schools.

“Those kids are not prepared,” said Douglas S. Craig, a lawyer in Houston whose son, Charles, was not accepted at the university. Charles Craig went to the University of Colorado at Boulder instead, Mr. Craig said, adding that getting into the top 10 percent at his son’s selective private high school was very difficult. “His class was two-thirds National Merit scholars and semifinalists. Their scores are all very, very high.”

The university’s data show top 10 and non-top 10 students earn similar SAT scores (1223 vs. 1257 in 2003), and ten percenters earn higher grades in their first year (3.24 vs. 2.9). Perhaps there’s a thumb on the scale here, but I can’t spot it. (Click on the link to open the Report 6 pdf file.)

Florida and California are emulating the Texas model, though California only admits the top 4 percent at each high school. And eligible but marginal students may have to start their University of California education at a community college.

Here’s Discriminations on the issue.

About Joanne


  1. I saw an article in the paper when we were in Phoenix about Arizona’s public universities changing things in that system, including using a percentage like the one UT and A&M use for admissions. The article clearly stated that the Arizona schools were working on trying to improve the likelihood of Arizona students going to Arizona schools. They were also considering a plan to expand the public university system.

    I live in Texas and know some people who hope their kids are going to be able to go to school here in Texas. It’s hard for kids who go to good schools, though. They’re all busy taking AP classes and so on, while kids at some school across town are doing work that wouldn’t even come close to what kids at “better schools” are doing. The kids from the average schools will get in and be less prepared than the kids from the better schools. I’d be willing to bet that fewer of the kids from the average schools will actually graduate.

    I think Arizona’s going to address that, to a point, though, by creating something like the UC/CSU tier in their schools. I don’t think the tier thing exists as much here in Texas, and that might be part of the problem.

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I have always been an advocate of let them in, wash them out. With the possible exception of flight training when an incompetent solo can cause grief on the ground, give everybody a chance.
    This would be even more appropriate if High Schools would give everybody a chance, but they lack the guts to perform the necessary triage.
    Very early on, I was an acting foreman at a foreman meeting when the real world equivalent of a tenure hearing was being held about a probationary worker in the instrument shop. We either had to make him permanent or send him back to the plant where he would retain plant seniority. The man had not worked directly with me so I did not feel qualified to pass on his ability so I kept quiet. The men who knew better let him have permanent status, and when he made a real dumb mistake a month later, there was no plant seniority for him to fall back on. We did that man no good by failing to put him where he could make it.

  3. stolypin says:

    Makes me wonder whether some parents will try to stream their kids ‘down’ to less competitive high schools in order to improve their admissions chances. Who knows, maybe we’ll start seeing demands for the implementation of a “reverse busing” program as parents from high income school districts demand that their children get on a bus to attend schools in low income school disrticts. 🙂

  4. In Texas it’s a common and joked about phenomenon. Teachers switch districts taking their kids with them to get into that 10% bracket. I did the opposite, moved my 2 sons to a very competitive private high school where they have blossomed. One’s going to UT, the other is a junior this year. Both are in the 10% in their respective classes. They could not have done it in a competitive public school, they were not there long enough to get AP tracked. (It starts at 4th grade.) So again, the parents take charge to determine what’s best. Even if it means working second jobs…..

  5. stolypin says:

    Mike, thanks for the info. The single most important factor for me when I made my last move (to Virginia) was making sure that we moved into an area zoned for the best public schools. And like millions of parents we made many sacrifices (ironically one being a pay cut resulting from my departure from NY) to do so.

  6. Vouchers to allow committed parents to choose better schools will certainly help. But a program to allow the top 10% (Texas) or top 4% (CA) into that states’ University system seems pretty good; MUCH better than racial quota affirmative action junk.

    The charge of being “unprepared” is prolly less true than mere affirmative action, PLUS there’s a better incentive in the weak/ bad schools to try to make it into the top 10%. While it might well be true that the weak school top 10% has a slightly higher dropout rate, I actually think they’re more likely to graduate — they already have the habits of doing what is needed to be in the top.

    In any case, I’m pretty sure a comparison of Blacks & Hispanic dropout rates will show that those from the top 10% have lower drop rates than generally.

    It’s a fine effort for gov’t school systems. What’s missing is what percentage of UT students are from that top 10%; I’d guess it around 60%. In CA, with a top 4%, I’d guess it around 20%. When the rate gets over 80%, it prolly starts crowding out good but not top 10% students too much.

  7. Superdestroyer says:

    Another affect of rewarding top 10% is for student to manipulate their class schedules to keep their GPA as high as possible. Take PE, Health, and other mandatory but non-AP classes in the last semester to try to keep the GPA as high as possible.

    Also, UT-Austin is one of those universities that accepts students into different colleges. So many of the kids at the highly competitive high schools who are not in the top ten might be accepted into UT but only into the college of social sciences or the college of education. They would not be accepted into the college of Engieering or Business School.

    Mr. Grey,

    Vouchers would not allow parents to choose better schools, it would only allow children to compete for better schools. I doubt if a voucher would allow any middle class parent in Houston to put their kids into the Kinkaid School in Houston (the school discussed in the articles.

    I wonder what would happen to a private high school at refuses to rank its students?

  8. What happened to the old Master Plan (1960) in California? In the 1960’s, to be admitted to the University of California you had to (1) be in the top 12-1/2% of your high school class, or (2) have SAT scorese above 1250, and (3) take prescribed academic coursework.

    There were also exceptions to the 12-1/2% requirement for certain “academic” high schools that had entrance exams to get it, and certain private schools. Lowell High School in San Francisco (minimum IQ 135 to be admitted back then) comes to mind as an example of the former and Santa Catalina as an example of the latter.

    As far as I could see that system worked very well.

    In those days, UC did practice a ‘sink or swim’ policy. When my father was at Berkely in the 1920s, he said that in the freshman science and math classes, some professors really told classes at the outset: “look to your right and look to your left. One of you will be here next year.” By the 1960s, grade inflation (or preparation) had improved to the point freshmen in the big science lecture class were given a similar injunction to look at their neighbors, followed by “One of you will not be here next year.

  9. I don’t know what the big debate is all about anyways. In my opinion, students could do equally as well as a 2 year comm. college or junior college (Tyler and SW Texas State come to mind here), and I’ve reviewed the offerings at these two schools (quite acceptable).

    Have a student earn the associate’s first, and at the same time, it costs less, the class size is generally smaller, parking isn’t a hassle, and you get about the same quality of education (for the first two years) that you would at TAMU, U of T, Univ. of Colorado, etc.

    Not to mention, any type of academic weakness in coursework is much better handled at a 2 year school (just my opinion).

    Also, remember another thing, when you get past 8 years of work experience, very few employers (except for the mindless dolts in HR) are going to CARE where you got your degree from.

  10. The point about community colleges is a good one. My wife’s family has 3 children, MS in psychology, PhD in Econcomics, and a PhD in Medieval Arabic Literature. All from top-tier schools. Their dad insisted that they start at community colleges. (BTW he’s a dual PhD in econ and engineering.)
    His reasoning was that at CC’s his kids would get seasoned instructors that teach for a living and not TA’s or professors more interested in research. BTW, in most universities it is very rare to have a PhD teaching freshman and sophmore (lower division) courses.

  11. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Do we want a cadre of highly educated people to help lead us, or do we want cannon fodder?
    If all we want is numbers, a good inkjet printer can turn out very good looking degrees with a lot less wear and tear on the budget.

  12. I wonder what the effect will be on the University as they take the top 10% and that 10% proves to be less well prepared than the top 20% from other schools due to less demanding school work, among other things. Will the University lower its standards? Teach down to the level of its students? Will they have to or be accused of all sorts of insensitivities as the unprepared wash out? Will they start dual tracking at the University with remedial courses? Either way, the University will probably change as the students change.

  13. I feel for the profs in the Texas system who have to deal with students that are badly prepared on the one hand, yet have administrators beating the drum of “keep retention high” on the other.

    It’s a real damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation in schools with less-competitive admission: you’re exhorted to keep your standards high and really TEACH them, and yet at the same time, you don’t want to lose too many between their freshman and sophomore year, which often happens when kids get to college not knowing the expectations or not being in the habit of taking notes, doing homework, and reading or when they just flat don’t have the background. I wish that the college degree wasn’t seen so much as a status symbol, but as simply ONE path that someone could go on towards a career, and that there are other, equally honorable, careers out there that don’t require a college degree. (I’m a prof and I suspect that my plumber makes more per hour than I do. Now maybe he has a college degree, I don’t know, but I don’t think one would be as helpful as good on-the-job training or a trade-school education).

  14. Mitchell says:

    Overall, the “top 10%” rule has been good for UT, and the student body has gotten better. An unforeseen side effect has been that enrollment has boomed, since, if you are in the 10%, UT HAS to let you in. UT is currently trying to regain some control over who it lets in, such that, if you are a top 10% student, you are NOT necessarily guaranteed admission. The official reason is to reduce the number of students down to what the university is built to handle (and believe me, it is one honkin’ large campus). But, since the rules to curb admission would allow UT to let in students “not in the top 10%,” I think it’s a way to let rich alumni get their kids in under the radar. The admissions system is fair now. Is it really a surprise that people are trying to change it?

  15. Superdestroyer says:


    Before you claim it is a success you may want to ask the kids at Plano High who are not in the top ten percent but have higher SAT scores that everyone at many of the high schools in South Dallas. One of the things that is helping is that many Hispanic and blacks kids still do not apply to UT-Austin even knowing they are automatic admissions.

  16. Ross (the heartless conservative says:

    As someone stated in an earlier post, it is possible that some of the “brighter” kids with motivated parents could move from the “better” schools to the schools where it is easier to be in the top 10%. This could actually be a good thing in that the concerned parents might demand more from the schools. All hypothetical of course but not a total stretch.

  17. We moved to Texas a few years ago and now have a daughter in High School. Our school is not the best in town, but is very good. As for the 10% rule we are big fans of it. Advanced classes such as AP, Honors and Dual Credit are weighted heavier than regular (not college prep) classes. This is based on both the type of class and the final grade of the student. In this way no one gets to take advantage of the system and take only easy classes in order to get in. We cannot afford to have our children go outside the state or to private colleges because of the financial burden. This is a big help to those of us that cannot pick up and move to the best school district and also those in rural areas. It’s pretty much as fair as you can get. Also, we are white so under the old AA my daughter would have been pushed out of the system no matter what her grades were.

  18. Anything which lessens the manic concentration on a few, “good” school districts to the detriment of the others is all to the good. I am not prepared to assert, without firm evidence, that every graduate of a few, favored public schools should automatically be considered more qualified than students from other public schools. This is a public university. The taxes to support it come from the entire state, including rural and inner city areas. Students from rural and inner city schools, who can do the work, should not be excluded from the state university system, merely because their parents couldn’t afford to live in a “premier” school district.

    From the university’s reports, (HB588-Report6-part1.pdf, page 9), “With only one exception at the lowest SAT score range (in 2001), when top 10% students are compared to non-top 10% students, top 10% freshmen significantly out-performed their classmates. Indeed, at the mid-ranges where most students are located, top 10% students performed as well as non-top10% students scoring 200-300 points higher on the SAT scale.”

  19. stolypin says:

    Moira, qucik question for you. Do some of your local High Schools participate in the International Bacalaureate [sic] or IB program. If so any thoughts you (or anyone else) may have on it would be quite welcome. My oldest is entering 8th grade and will enter high school in September 2005. Some local high schools here offer the IB program, and others focus on AP courses. Apparently the twain do not meet so we have some thinking to do as we begin mapping out our plans for high schools. Have only begun researching the former and wonder if you have any insight here. Thanks in advance, Ivan

  20. I heartily recommend that students entering college do NOT go directly to schools like UT-Austin or TAMU. Freshman classes are incredibly large, and kids tend to get lost in the sheer size of it.

    I went to a small, Catholic liberal arts college (about 1500 students) for most of my undergrad career, and took senior classes at UT-Austin. Even as a senior (with grad student privileges because I was doing research on a Welch scholarship), it was almost overwhelming. I then did my graduate work at UTSA, which was a new campus then. It wasn’t too bad, but now it is just like the local community college, San Antonio College – extended high school. My niece is transfering out of UTSA and into SWT for the fall for this reason.

    No matter how good a student you are, you’ll do better if you stay out of the really big schools where classes meet in auditoriums and you need binoculars to see the face of the graduate student who teaches the class.

  21. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Perhaps we shoould limit admission for lower division to the top 1%, and require 2 years local college for every one else.
    Of course, this would play hell with football and basetball teams.

  22. Superdestroyer says:

    1.One of the problems with transferring is that schools like UT-Austin are notorious for not accepting transfer credits. The JuCo may be cheaper but if half the hours do not transfer, it is no bargain.

    In addition, students who want to go Pre-Med, science, engineering are at a severe disadvantage in trying to transfer. The classes at the community college are just not as fast or as in depth. It leaves the transfer student far behind in terms of base knowledge in a major where classes build on each other.

    2. I question the statistics of the top ten versus not top ten. Many of the top ten are good students and will have high SAT scores and some of the non top ten are athletes and other non-academic admissions that will pull the mean performance down for that cohort.

    3. JuliaK, the taxpayers pay for all of the schools in the state. If UT-Arlington is good enough for the 1250 SAT scoring student at Plano HS who is not in the top 10% of his class because he took harder classes and took a foreign language, then why isn’t it good enough for the top ten student at Dallas Carter HS who probably does not even read or write at grade level, took no math beyound algebra, and avoided a foreign language?

  23. pragmatist says:

    How about totally open admissions? Anyone who
    wants to gets into the school. And then grade
    EVERYBODY on the curve. Allow only the top
    percentage (10-15-25% – your choice) to continue
    on. Students who will work hard and study
    make the cut. All the others can transfer to

  24. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Somebody get that pragmatist quick! If thinking like that got out, millions of admissions officers would be back at Burger King.

  25. There is a chart in the university data Joanne links to that shows GPA for 10% and non 10% at various ranges of SAT score. My eyeball estimate is that top 10% status should be worth the equivalent of about 200 points of SAT. (That is, a top 10% with a 1000 SAT has about the same GPA as a non-top 10% with a 1200 SAT.) The top of the non 10% distribution appears flat – SAT over 1400 isn’t much better than 1200 for non 10%ers GPA (lazy smart people, like me). 10%ers seem to continue to do well – 1400 is worth as much more than 1200 as 1200 is better than 1000 for them.

    I suspect that many of the sub 900 non 10%s who get admitted are athletes of one stripe or another. Their poor performance shouldn’t be taken into account, necessarily – it isn’t the admissions office’s fault those kids are there, it is the Chancellor’s office’s fault for not telling the AD to screen for a brain.

  26. stolypin says:

    I seem to recall that the Open Admissions policy at the City University of New York did not end well.

  27. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Students need honest grades that guide them in their choices.

  28. I agree with the Claire that almost all students would be better served in schools with smaller classes (whether in the form of local junior colleges or small public/private liberal arts colleges) at least through the lower division. I also agree with Superdestroyer that credit transfer and course quality (especially in the sciences) are signficant problem at many schools, especially for junior college transfers.

    Back to the California experience before the system was wrecked in the ’70s and 80’s! In the 40’s – 60’s California solved the transfer problem for junior college students by (an at least informal) system of designating classes that were “University of California (UC) Transferable”. Sometimes the catalogs for the JCs would specify in writing which courses were guaranteed to transfer. These classes consisted of most, if not all of the general education and pre-major requirements for the ‘standard’ liberal arts and science majors. The courses were taught by tenured doctorate-holding faculty, using UC course syllabi and the same texts currently in use for the class at the nearest (or most popular for transfer) UC campus. The courses were taught and graded to UC standards; and if one got at least a C, UC promised to give you transfer credit for the course. These courses were a small fraction of the courses at the junior colleges, but everyone knew about them. (If there were 25 sections (40 kids each) of freshman English 1A, maybe 4 or 5 sections would be the “UC Transferable” sections.) Well prepared, but financially strapped kids could go to the local JC for two years knowing their credits would transfer. Kids who weren’t sure if they could hack UC level work could try it out. And, kids who weren’t ready could take the ‘regular’ classes at the JC (which were supposed to be equivalent to the California State Colleges level) and, if they did well, take the UC Transferable courses.

  29. When I worked in college admissions back in the 70’s, we always told students who were planning to go to a junior college and then transfer to a 4-year college to check out both their intended junior college AND their transfer college at the same time. Any 4-year college admissions office can tell you which classes will transfer from just about any junior college – most are easy and obvious. For example, anything against the first two years of core requirements usually transfers. If the course is assigned an upper level designator (3rd or 4th year number), then the junior college credits will NOT transfer, even if the course content is exact. ‘Life lesson’ and ‘fun’ or ‘continuing ed’ courses don’t transfer, nor do any that are remedial. Do your 1st & 2nd year English, precalculus, sociology, psychology, philosophy, phys. ed., etc. Also, you have to be careful about courses in your major. For example, a general chemistry course won’t transfer if you’re going to major in chemistry or engineering, but it will count if you’re going to major in something in the non-sciences.

    A little homework up front can save you paying for courses that won’t transfer. All it takes is thinking ahead, which seems to be impossible for some people, apparently.


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