Trading (university) places

by John Q on July 27, 2006

I’ve been enjoying the company of colleagues, Australians currently living in the US, for the last few weeks, and last night we (and families) all went to dinner at a riverside restaurant. Discussion turned to schools, as it does, and the Texas system under which the top 10(?) per cent of students from every school are guaranteed a place in the state university of their choice came up. This system seems to provide at least a partial answer to the schools choice problems. There’s a built-in incentive to send children to a school where the competition won’t be so tough. Moreover, it mutes the incentive for schools to game the system by ‘teaching to the test’ – Australian studies have regularly shown that the entry scores of students from private schools overpredict their university performance relative to those from state schools, presumably because the private schools do a better job of boosting those scores.

I haven’t thought through it in detail, but on the face of it, a system based on implicit trade in university places seems more appealing and robust than the system of cash-based markets for incoming students discussed by Harry.



Slocum 07.27.06 at 4:36 pm

This system seems to provide at least a partial answer to the schools choice problems.

The problem is that this system is intended as an alternative way to provide racial balance in higher education, but for it to have that effect, high-schools must be segregated. You might think that to the extent this provided an incentive for integration, that would be a good thing. The problem with THAT is that around the U.S. high-performing, integrated districts (in liberal communities like Berkeley, Evanston, Ann Arbor, Princeton, Shaker Heights) have large ‘achievement gaps’. See, for example:

If all districts in the country were like these (well-funded, integrated, and high-performing) no more than a handful of African American or Hispanic students would qualify under a ‘top 10’ plan.

The persistent achievement gaps in these districts also call into question the logic of cash-based approaches in general. Even when disadvantaged students attend school in integrated districts with generous funding and strong committments to overcoming racial differences — even then, students from disadvantaged minority families continue to underperform badly. Unfortunately, it’s just not the money (unfortunately because if it were just money, that would be relatively easy).


agm 07.27.06 at 10:16 pm

Exactly. It works in Texas, by accident, because we are a largely segregated state.

First, yes, it’s the top 10% of any public high school in Texas. (At least, it is until the next legislative session, at which it is supposedly a sure bet that powerful legislators, whose children or whose friends’ children were just a hair short of being being top 10% and thus were not admitted, will kill the law.)

Second, what have you been told about Texas? Unlike some other state school systems, the UT System is made up of separate universities with an overarching governance structure (what Richard Tapia calls “the University of Texas and the Seven Dwarves”). The state has always favored the University of Texas, leading to a situation where it is one of the two best universities in Texas for an undergrad education (the other not being a public institution), and certainly one of the top universities in the country outside the Ivy Leagues. It’s not a place you send marginal students, either grad or undergrad; they will quickly fail out or leave.

Third, it has absolutely, and I mean utterly, no impact on the issue of teaching to the test. The 10% percent law was something pushed through by legislators who come from regions far from Austin, whose communities’ children were not being admitted to the flagship university on account of being unable to compete based on mere numbers with pampered white kids from Plano or Sugarland and such. It was a response to a (5th Circuit?) Court of Appeals ruling stating that race could not be used in admissions in an arbitrary way. Texas had been admitting “underrepresented” students using what amounted a technique that amounted to arbitrarily giving them extra points for being not-white on a scale (the arbitrariness is what was ruled to be a violation). However, if you can’t take race into account, you’re locking the more than half the population of the state out of the chance to compete for a slot at the school everyone wants to go to (not just because it’s a good school, but also because it is THE University of Texas). South Texas lawmakers were having none of that, and pushed the law through somehow. The teaching-to-the-test issue is about the distribution of money, especially federal, to run the primary and secondary school systems. The measuring sticks used (TAKS scores and TEKS guidelines, along with lots of other statistics compiled to meet federal reporting requirements) predate and are unrelated to the 10% law.


SamChevre 07.28.06 at 8:42 am

The problem with a market in university places (as a substitute for reasonable school choice for the poor) is that it doesn’t benefit the people who are currently (IMO) worst served by the school system–the poor working class. If your goal is to go into a trade apprenticeship, putting ever more resources into the university-bound students compounds the problem.


M'lou 07.28.06 at 9:59 am

The relationship between the 10% rule in Texas and the issue of school choice is a lot more complicated than John imagines. You would think that the 10% rule provides an incentive for people to send their children to less well performing schools, but that often happens in ways that harm the chances of minority or poor students. For example, lavishly funded public magnet schools are often placed within under-performing schools in poor districts. Most of the students eligible for those elite schools are white high achievers from families with more money and education than the typical families of students from the school district in which the magnet school is placed. Often, the members of the magnet school have their own teachers and reseources, and study separately within the larger, underfunded school; yet they are considered part of the overall student body when it comes to the 10% rule. I believe this is what you would call a stacked deck.

That does help schools in poor/minority districts by raising overall test scores, a major concern for any school in Texas. The 10% rule does not necessarily mute the incentive to teach to the test here (in Texas). Test scores tie in closely to property values–the basis of school funding here–because parents will pay whatever they can for a house in a high-performing school district. School performance is measured in part by test scores, which means that the schools are driven to teach classes with an eye toward the test. Since students are graded on the content of those classes, the top 10% of a high school are going to be students who got the highest grades in learning class content oriented toward the test. What happens to them once they get into UT is the less immediate issue in the scramble to preserve the status of the local school district, and property values.

In addition, Texas lies deep in the heart of the bible-belt. School choice can have little to do with the quality of education: here it’s all about having your kid in a “Christian” school, protected from the unsaved, and having those same unsaved fund your choice.

All that said: The University of Texas recently announced that it graduates the most diverse student bodies in the nation–not surprising given the makeup of the population here, where traditional minorities are becoming the majority.


harry b 07.28.06 at 10:36 am

Right, I’m with samchevre on this (not meaning to imply that I’m not with samchevre on other things). The least well served are not the bottom 50% (who don’t go to college) but the bottom 20-30%, and its not clear that they benefit very much from having a somewhat (but not much) better smattering of more advantaged kids in their schools. Furthermore, all this only effects High School (which is only the last 4 years of compulsory ed, by which time its already curtains for many in the bottom 30%). Also, a good number of very advantaged kids simply aren’t playing the game — for them it is Ivy League, failing that Flagship State School, fialing that private liberal arts college, and they have no interest in going to second-rate state school.

In wisconsin the governor (I’m not a fan) is playing with the idea of promising admission plus free tuition at a state school to kids who perform well enough. That might be more effective over time, but again not for the least well served kids.

Still, I’m not at all opposed to the X% rules, I think they are basically good news. Just, as with all other reforms I know (including those I advocate) we should be cautious about expecting too much.

Comments on this entry are closed.