Top Ten Percent Rule: Fisher v. University of Texas

The Top Ten Percent policy is one of the key issues in the case filed by Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas now before the Supreme Court. Fisher alleges that her rejection from the University of Texas was based on discrimination due to her race (white). One of Fisher’s principal arguments is that the Top Ten Percent Rule has produced sufficient levels of diversity, i.e., that it already increases minority enrollment.

A number of states such as California, Texas, and Florida have created “Top Ten Percent” (TTP) rules that guarantee admission to public universities for students who graduate in the top ten percent of their classes. In Texas, House Bill 588 created this rule in 1997 as a way to avoid the stipulations of the Hopwood v. Texas case that barred the use of affirmative action in application decisions. Legislation in Texas passed in 2009 allowed the University of Texas to reduce the number of students admitted under the ten percent rule to 75 percent of the entering freshman class. This reduction was in response to concerns that the University had to turn down better-qualified applicants under the automatic admission policy. TTP policies still remain controversial since some believe that these laws give unfair advantage to individuals from less competitive high schools.

A recent working paper posted on the University of Michigan’s National Poverty website discusses the impact of the TTP plan on admissions at Texas public universities. The authors, Lindsay Daugherty, Francisco Martorell, and Isaac McFarlin, examine the effect of automatic college admissions for a potentially underserved population. These researchers found that effects on flagship university attendance of TTP policy are twice as large for white students than minority students, with no effects for low-income students. TTP students are more likely to be white and female, and less likely to be economically disadvantaged. Only 10 percent of TTP students enroll in a flagship, compared to 30 percent in higher-sending schools. As a result, the authors suggest that eligibility for automatic admissions “may not have much effect on the outcomes of students in the most disadvantaged schools”(p. 21).

Similar results are reported in studies by Princeton University sociology professors Angel Harris and Marta Tienda. For example, in a 2010 analysis of the “Minority Higher Education Pipeline” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Harris and Tienda found that the shift from affirmative action to TTP policies in Texas resulted in lower admission rates for both Hispanics and blacks relative to whites and Asian Americans. They point out, however, that Asian Americans did not enjoy an admissions advantage under any of the policy regimes.

Harris and Tienda further explain that the admissions disadvantage of blacks and Hispanics to white applicants grew over time, with an annual loss in Hispanic applications that range from 240 at the University of Texas at Austin to nearly 700 at Texas A&M University and a loss of black applicants ranging from more than 60 to UT to more than 300 to TAMU. This loss reaches its lowest point under the Top Ten regime.

An insightful article by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the Atlantic Wire indicates that in 2008, the year Fisher applied, the Texas University system gave admission to 92 percent of its in-state spots through the Top Ten policy. Since Fisher was not in the top ten percent, she and other applicants were evaluated on grades, test scores, and a personal achievement index that included two required essays as well as consideration of socioeconomic status, race, and other factors. Fisher’s scores were 1180 out of 1600 on the SAT and her grade point average was 3.59, good, but not outstanding. The university indicates that even if Fisher had received points for her race and every other personal achievement factor, she would not have been accepted. The university did, however, offer provisional admission to some students who had lower test scores and grades than Fisher: five were black or Latino, and forty-two were white.

Given the substantial empirical findings on the impact of the Top Ten Percent policy on minority admissions as well as the University’s assessment that Ms. Fisher would not have been admitted even if she had received points for her race, it is difficult to ascertain the specific disadvantage that Ms. Fisher received as an applicant under Texas’ Top Ten Percent rule coupled with UT’s holistic review process.