WCPC: How did you become interested in the issue of access to higher education in general, and what was it about Texas's Top Ten Percent Law that made it attractive to study?
ML: My interest in access to higher education comes from a combination of interest in promoting "efficient" social mobility (by which I mean, society investing in efforts to promote the advancement of talented but underprivileged youth up to the point at which the costs of doing so outweigh the social benefits) and interest in college access as a means of promoting equity, particularly in somewhat overcoming the historical legacy of slavery, and the effects of contemporary segregation and discrimination. The Texas' Top Ten Percent Law is interesting to study because it is the most comprehensive "alternative" policy that has been attempted at a state level to serve as an alternative to direct race-based affirmative action. The interesting question is whether you can maintain or improve minority enrollment in flagship institutions without directly using the student's race in the admissions decision.
WCPC: You and your collaborators worked with a couple of different data sets in order to study the effects of the Top Ten Percent Law on access. How difficult is it to get the information you need to answer these types of questions?
ML: The data for this project came from institutional admissions records from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M university. Data on applicants from these and other institutions were collected by the Texas Higher Education Education Opportunity Project (www.theop.princeton.edu) over the course of a number of years by my co-author, Marta Tienda, along with Teresa Sullivan. Data solely on enrollees for more recent years were obtained from the UT Office of Admissions Research by my co-author, Victor Saenz. Having this kind of administrative institutional data is key to answering the kind of nuanced questions we were interested in. National survey data (e.g., NELS, ELS) is useful for estimating the extent of college affirmative action at a national level, but is limited in its ability to show what has happened in states or at particular institutions as they have pursued alternative strategies.
WCPC: What was the most significant finding to you?
ML: There are two findings that I think are most significant. First, on every measure we tested (geography, race, and poverty), UT-Austin is pulling a larger share of its enrollees from high schools that were less represented in the pre-policy years. Second, we find that persistence in a high school sending enrollees (i.e., the likelihood that a high school will send enrollees given that they have sent enrollees in the prior year) has increased post-policy.
WCPC: What questions does this research raise for future inquiry?
ML: By the title of our paper, we signal that we think policy transparency is an important factor in the efficacy of the Top Ten Percent Law; simply being in the top-10% of one's high school grants automatic admission and this status is easily known by the student. Nonetheless, we don't directly test this hypothesis. The Texas legislature has recently imposed a 75 percent cap on the share of top 10 percent students that UT-Austin is required to admit automatically. This policy change could decrease the transparency of the policy as it is now less clear what being in the top-10% of one's high school grants the student. It would be interesting for someone to study how this change affects student application behavior.
WCPC: What implications does this study have for policy makers?
ML: Over many years, the Texas legislature has considered changes to the Top Ten Percent Law. On the one hand, rural legislators largely supported the law as they felt that it was a mechanism for students in their regions to get into the flagship institutions, while suburban legislators largely opposed the law as it lowered the number of slots available to students outside the top-10% of their class and these legislators felt their constituents were disadvantaged by the policy. Our research indeed shows that representation of rural students at UT-Austin improved, while suburban students share diminished.