This post is part of an occasional series examining how California can learn from policies in other states.
Passed in 1996, California’s Proposition 209 prohibits colleges from considering race as a factor in admissions. Partly as a result, the University of California (UC) system does not fully reflect the diversity of the state’s high school graduates, a cause for concern among many observers. This disparity is even greater at the most elite campuses: UC Berkeley and UCLA. Other states facing bans on race-based affirmative action, including Texas, have developed alternative policies to address racial equity in college admissions.
Policy: Texas’s Top 10% Plan
In 1998, Texas instituted a two-part plan to promote diversity at its universities in response to the state’s ban on race-based affirmative action. The first part, the Texas Top 10% Plan, guarantees admission to any public Texas university to students in the top 10% of their high school’s graduating class. The plan relies on the fact that Texas high schools are highly segregated by race and income to produce a diverse set of students with guaranteed admission.
The second part of the plan fills any remaining spots at public universities with students from outside of the top 10%, and allows campuses to consider many factors, including race, during this process. This second part is being called into question in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case that was recently argued in front of the Supreme Court.
Following the law’s implementation, the top school in the state, the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), saw more applications and enrollees from traditionally underrepresented high schools—those with high concentrations of minority students, from rural areas or small and midsize cities, and from less affluent regions throughout Texas. The policy also likely encouraged Latino students to apply and gain access to top Texas universities. Today, a majority of UT Austin students are top 10% students. The policy, however, did not produce the same diversity levels as affirmative action.
Lessons for California
UC already has a program called Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC), which guarantees admission for eligible students who are in the top 9% of their high school. Unlike the Texas plan, ELC does not guarantee students admission to the school of their choice—they are only guaranteed a spot somewhere in the UC system. Students who are eligible but do not get into their campus of choice are offered a spot at a campus with space—most often UC Merced. In 2014, over 11,000 UC-eligible students were referred to UC Merced, but very few enrolled.
UC’s guaranteed-admission plan has not led to high levels of diversity at its elite campuses. But would a guaranteed-choice plan like Texas’s work in California? A recent report by the Civil Rights Project shows that California has among the most segregated K–12 schools in the nation, so guaranteeing top students a spot at their preferred UC campus may give students in underrepresented groups across California a path to the top universities that ELC does not currently provide.
More research is needed to determine how California’s most competitive and prestigious public universities would deal with even higher demand. Texas’s results show that guaranteed admission alone can’t produce the same results as affirmative action, but it might be a part of an effective plan to remedy underrepresentation in California’s top universities.