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In a new NBER Working Paper Julie Cullen, Mark Long and Randy Reback examine the impacts of the Texas 10% Plan. This plan was implemented as a defacto method of affirmative action in college admissions. Rather than giving direct preferences to disadvantaged students in the college applications process (which may run afoul of recent Supreme Court decisions) the state of Texas attempted to skirt this by granting admission to any public university in Texas, including the flagships, to anyone in the top 10% of the class rankings in their school.

Sounds like a good idea, right? This program satisfies the “rule of law” at least in name. And it seems to guarantee that students from poor and under-represented districts will find their way into Texas Government Universities regardless of their absolute academic standing. Of course, the world is not static. So what has happened? Here is some of the abstract:

Students may increase their chances of being in the top ten percent by choosing a high school with
lower-achieving peers.    Our analysis of students’ school transitions between 8th and 10th grade three years before and after the policy change reveals that this incentive influences enrollment choices in the anticipated direction.  Among the subset of students with both motive and opportunity for strategic high school choice, as many as 25 percent enroll in a different high school to improve the chances of being in the top ten percent.  Strategic students tend to choose the neighborhood high school in lieu of more competitive magnet schools and, regardless of own race, typically displace minority students from the top ten percent pool.

And here is some from the conclusion of the paper:

We find that strategic high school choice tends to undermine the racial diversity goal of the
top ten percent plan at the university access level.
Though minority students have greater
strategic opportunities so are more likely to trade down, the net effect of strategic behavior is to
slightly increase the representation of white students in the top ten percent pool. Both white and
minority students who trade down are relatively likely to displace minority students who
otherwise would have placed in the top ten percent of their class. Since peer achievement and
minority share are highly negatively correlated across high schools, this is almost an inevitable
consequence of strategizing in this setting.

But maybe this dislocation has other, positive, external effects? If higher achieving blacks and whites are moving into relatively poorly performing communities, wouldn’t we expect positive peer effects for students in those schools, and possibly positive impacts on home values and other social outcomes in those communities?

One Response to “Unintended Consequences: Episode 10,598,344”

  1. Harry says:

    I question how they know all this.

    If you are a high school freshman, or a parent, how do you get strategic about what percentage of who knows what your kid will be, and how do you assess the future success of his or her classmates, and how do the sociology scientists measure all that?

    Whoever has a full-time job doing that, he would be more productive breaking windows.

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