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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Making Sure the Wealthy Do Well by Doing Good

YaleUniversityAs the college admissions scandal illustrates, wealthy parents always will look for ways to game the system in favor of their children. Fortunately, there’s an important way for elite universities to turn parental gaming strategies in a direction that will promote income equality rather than exacerbate income inequality—the top class rank admissions policy pioneered in Texas.

In Texas, if students graduate in the top ten percent of their high school class, they earn automatic admission to the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M, and other public universities. This promotes diversity in the colleges’ entering classes because students at poor, heavily minority high schools have the same odds of admission as students at wealthy, heavily white schools. Indeed, at UT-Austin, which admits students through both a modified top ten track and a standard track with an affirmative action component, the top class rank students are more racially and economically diverse.

Top class rank policies also may provide the most effective solution to the problem of economic inequality in the United States. Economic inequality creates highly uneven opportunities for success in life. Children in wealthier communities have much greater chances for upward mobility than do children in low-income communities.

And what matters more for children’s professional opportunities is not how rich or poor their families are but the degree to which their neighborhoods are economically segregated. Thus, a poor child living in an economically integrated community has much greater upward mobility than does a poor child living in a poor community.

Traditional college admissions policies reward upper-income families for residential choices that promote economic segregation. By clustering in upscale communities, the well-to-do can create exclusive neighborhoods that have stronger school systems than elsewhere. As a result, the high schools will more likely be seen as “feeder” schools for top colleges.

But consider what would happen if Harvard and other elite colleges adopt a top class rank policy. When selective colleges treat the best graduates of all high schools equally, parents weaken their children’s chances of admission by creating exclusive communities. In a top class rank world, children’s chances of admission are greater if they live in economically integrated communities. Top class rank policies can change elite universities from institutions that increase inequality into institutions that foster equality.

Would parents really choose less exclusive communities and lower-performing schools to improve their children’s chances for admission to an elite college? They have in Texas. Many parents select lower-performing schools and live in less prosperous school districts.

To be sure, the effects in Texas have been modest, but that’s because the top class rank policy doesn’t affect an applicant’s chances of admission to a private university or an out-of-state public university. If all elite universities followed the Texas model, the incentives for residential integration would be powerful. 

When affluent white students move to the lower-performing schools, they won’t monopolize the top class rank slots. The shift will take place gradually over a number of years. In addition, top class rank policies raise the performance of students who already attend lower-performing schools. By increasing the chances for admission to an elite university, the policies give the students greater reason to work hard in school, and the students respond by achieving at higher levels. If there were an adverse impact on diversity, colleges could address that by combining a top class rank policy with an affirmative action policy.

Texas has been able to maintain quality with its increased diversity. The top class rank students at UT-Austin achieve at the same levels as the students they displace, and they graduate at the same rate. Top class rank policies can identify excellent applicants without consideration of SAT scores or other academic metrics. And if elite colleges want to consider test scores and other factors, such as artistic talent or athletic skills, they can continue to do so, as long as the odds of admission are the same from one high school to another.

No matter what system elite colleges use for admissions, upper-income families will try to game the system to their advantage. What’s so valuable about top class rank policies is that the gaming promotes economic and educational equality.


Posted by David Orentlicher on March 13, 2019 at 11:44 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: ashley koree | Jul 6, 2019 8:19:08 AM

David, thanks much for the replies. Very briefly, I think that the administration of this is more complex than you've suggested, including because (a) it deviates sharply from the existing method, in which schools have some accumulated expertise (which may be put to bad use, I grant), and (b) as you say, the proposed method distinctly requires collective behavior. As to the latter, that is difficult under the best of circumstances, but more so when it might require sharing otherwise private information, and because it would have to avoid antitrust infringement (see the Brown University et al financial aid litigation).

As to competition among schools, I'm just not sure that we'd see that "all schools will have strong advocates for funding instead of only some schools" or that overall support would increase, though I'd love to see both. Diffusion of advocacy, loss of localism, and the sheer difficulty of securing measurable improvement across a broader set of institutions could pose powerful barriers; certainly other attempts at pooling, including collective defense efforts, have suffered. If Texas saw not only that parents moved, but that school funding increased and showed less variation, it would be good evidence for your prediction, although even then I'm not sure how easily that translates to broader areas.

Posted by: Ed | Mar 18, 2019 11:07:35 AM

Ed, thanks very much for your good questions.

1. As you suggest, an elite private college couldn't offer admission to the top 10 percent of high school grads or even the top 1 percent. What selective colleges could do is make high class rank a threshold requirement for admission, with other factors deciding which among the top class rank students are admitted.

For example, elite colleges could initially narrow their applicant pools by excluding anyone with a high school class rank below the top five or ten percent. Then they could winnow the pool further by taking into account other aspects of an applicant’s talents, experiences, and background. It would just be important to ensure that there be an equal chance of admission across different high schools for the top scholars, athletes, artists, or other applicants who bring special talents, experiences, or backgrounds to the table.

In terms of making sure that the odds of admission are equal across all high schools, once a school winnows its pool down to the strongest applicants, it could use a lottery system that would give the same odds of acceptance to students from different high schools. As to geographic diversity, Texas has seen greater representation of students from rural areas under its top class rank policy, and elite universities also should see good geographic diversity.

While a top class rank approach would have its complexities for elite colleges, it would be no more complex than the current holistic approach that the schools employ. I don't think government oversight would be required. The schools could adopt a top class rank policy on their own. And it would be important for all of them to do so collectively. Individual colleges would be reluctant to act alone for fear that they would suffer in the US News or other rankings if their average SAT and ACT scores declined relative to those at other colleges .

2. I don't think schools would lack sufficient incentive to excel under a top class rank system. While they wouldn't be able to demonstrate excellence through college placement statistics, they still would face pressure from parents to provide a strong education. Parents will want to make sure their children are well-prepared for college and beyond, and they will advocate for funding for their children's schools. The main difference is that all schools will have strong advocates for funding instead of only some schools. The advocacy for school funding will improve overall since more parents with political influence will send their children to public schools instead of private schools.

Posted by: David Orentlicher | Mar 18, 2019 10:51:34 AM

I've no reason to doubt that this kind of measure promotes income equality, which may be a sufficient reason. Two sorts of questions, though.

1. Can you say more about how this scales up beyond a particular state university and its residents, and GPA? How would schools actually set the %, and could any similar kind of guarantee be offered? How would they actually ensure equivalent "odds of admission" on criteria other than class rank? Could national schools maintain geographic diversity? Would administration of what sounds like a very complex scheme be vested in the Department of Education?

2. As to the framing as promoting "parental gaming strategies," just of the good kind . . . I take it you have in mind that "Many parents select lower-performing schools and live in less prosperous school districts." I do see the upside. But how do we assess the potential cost, in terms of potentially reducing the pressure on schools to demonstrate excellence through relative college placement, and diminishing the incentive to maintain school funding?

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Posted by: Addu | Mar 16, 2019 6:16:07 AM

"The same percentage of white and black students major in STEM and get STEM Master's degrees."

Why wouldn't they? If all high schools equally ready students for college, wouldn't they all produce mostly STEM majors?

Posted by: Einstein | Mar 13, 2019 3:08:06 PM

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