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Scholars Find Texas Automatic Admissions Create College Mismatches

At least 1 in 4 Blacks and Hispanics at Texas public universities who received automatic admissions in recent years were at institutions where the undergraduates’ level of college preparedness was significantly less than that of their non-minority peers.

This is one of the findings of a recent study examining academic mismatch resulting from the Top 10 Percent Plan in Texas, which lawmakers implemented in the late 1990s. Affirmative action was dropped from admissions decisions in response to reverse discrimination lawsuits from Whites, so lawmakers at the time were trying to find a proxy for race.

Authors of the study stopped short of criticizing the automatic admissions policy. Nor did they suggest that minorities who were overmatched were doomed to fail. Instead, they attributed the mismatch to consumers lacking adequate, reliable information about the admissions process, the academic competitiveness of each campus and which ones were best-suited for them.

“Racial and ethnic differences in college mismatch can derive from different levels of college preparation and high school quality or from different sources of information about college, different expectations from families and teachers, or different expectations about future success,” the authors wrote. “In particular, low-income and minority students whose parents did not attend college might lack information about their prospects for acceptance, compared to more affluent Whites with college-educated parents.”

The study is titled “Can Admissions Percent Plans Lead to Better Collegiate Fit for Minority Students?” It is published in this month’s issue of The American Economic Review. The issue is composed of more than 100 papers that were among those presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in January. The selection of 100-plus papers spanned topics as wide-ranging as gender differences in educational attainment, the effectiveness of blended learning, classroom experiments and other educational methods, U.S. economic outlooks, and this country’s economic impact on health outcomes.

The Texas percent plan study was undertaken by Dr. Kalena Cortes, an associate professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, and Dr. Jane Arnold Lincove, a research assistant professor of economics at Tulane University.

Texas was an early adopter of an admissions “percent plan” but is the only state that grants automatic admissions solely based on high school class rank, and furthermore, lets consumers choose which institution to attend. In other states with percent plans, universitywide system officials assign freshmen to specific campuses.

Cortes and Lincove examined overmatch and undermatch trends. The latter occurs when high achievers fail to enroll at academically rigorous universities while low achievers do, meaning overmatch.

The researchers found that overmatch rates among Blacks and Hispanics were 29 and 25 percent, respectively, while overmatch rates for Asians and Whites were 15 and 13 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, the reverse was true of undermatch. Blacks and Hispanics undermatched by 9 and 15 percent, respectively, compared with 18 percent of Asians and 22 percent of Whites.

“At the same time, Black and Hispanics students attend high schools with lower average college readiness and college-going rates, and Whites and Asians are more likely to benefit from automatic admissions,” Cortes and Lincove wrote. “Admissions information can vastly improve minority access to college quality by encouraging eligible students to apply to, and more importantly, enroll in more challenging institutions. Substantial undermatching occurs among highly qualified students with low family resources. Students who face the greatest potential for social mobility fail to apply to prestigious universities despite the availability of generous financial aid.”

The researchers examined college enrollment tendencies of all students at public Texas institutions who had graduated in the top 10 percent of their class in 2008 and in 2009 from in-state public high schools. Both cohorts included large minority populations. They also reviewed SAT scores, Advanced Placement courses completed in high school, demographics and other information listed on college applications and financial aid forms such as whether students qualified for free and reduced lunch programs during high school.

They defined high achievers as students whose SATs were more than 20 percentile points above the median at each campus, and low achievers as those whose SATs were more than 20 percentile points below the campus median.

Cortes and Lincove found that, despite the guaranteed admissions, Blacks and Hispanics in the top 10 percent of their graduating class were “significantly more likely to undermatch in college enrollment than Whites in the top decile within any given, single high school.”

They found that automatic admissions tended to prevent Blacks and Hispanics with high SATs from undermatching yet also influenced Blacks with low SATs to overmatch. They concluded that automatic admissions only mitigated minority undermatch for students with high SATs.

“Automatic admission policies interact with other signals in enrollment decisions,” the authors wrote. “Admissions information can improve college matching for high-performing minorities and also induce overmatching for low-performing minorities with high class rank.”

They added: “There is a distinct pattern of college mismatch by race and ethnicity. It is quite worrisome.”

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