Universities across the country will be watching closely as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in two university admission cases on October 31, 2022. Many legal experts predict that affirmative action, a practice that gives preferences to discriminated groups, will be abolished when the court issues its ruling next spring. This could prevent private and public universities from considering a student’s race or ethnicity as one of many admissions factors, along with grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities.
Colleges that still want to build a diverse student body that reflects the nation’s demographics are looking for alternatives. Two States could provide valuable information. Researchers have studied what happened at public universities in Texas and California, which have banned the use of affirmative action since 1996.
Texas moved to a Top Ten Percent policy in 1998 under which public universities accept the cream of the crop into every high school in rich and poor neighborhoods. (In practice, students must now be in the top 6 percent of their high school class for admission to the University of Texas at Austin.) But that didn’t do much to boost the percentage of black and Hispanic students. Immediately after the affirmative action ban, the percentage of black and Hispanic students at the state’s two flagship campuses, UT-Austin and Texas A&M, fallen from 18 percent to 13 percent. Four years after the Top Ten Percent policy began, the percentage of black and Hispanic students increased by only 1.6 percentage points on flagship campuses. The researchers say this small increase was likely due to demographic changes in the state and not because the plan worked well.
Thousands of high-achieving students in low-income high schools did not take advantage of the Top Ten Percent policy. Even though they would have been automatically admitted to UT-Austin and Texas A&M, they didn’t bother to apply. Nearly half of the state’s high schools never or rarely sent students into flagships for 18 years after the Top Ten Percent policy came into effect. The higher-income high schools that originally directed children to Texas’ flagships have continued to be major suppliers of students.
California had a similar experience. After voters eliminated affirmative action in a 1996 referendum, the University of California system tried awareness programs and an automatic student acceptance policy top 9 percent of their high school classes. In 2001, the UC system moved to “holistic” admissions, looking at many factors beyond test scores and grades. As of 2020, the system has completely eliminated the SAT and ACT tests. But UA says its efforts have not been enough to keep up with demographic changes in the state. The state’s high school students in 2021 were 54% Latino and 5.4% Black. But that fall, incoming freshmen at the University of California were 26 percent Latino and 4.4 percent black. It was worse at most selective campuses. (Registration data for 2022 is not yet available.)