UK Universities could learn from Texas, where they admit the top 10% from every high school

February 10, 2011 at 10:03 am 3 comments

by Alec Patton

You’d be forgiven for being confused by the array of carrots and sticks being deployed in higher education, especially with today’s news that the government will be, in effect, flogging universities with a carrot – penalising universities who take advantage of their new power to charge students over £6000 without admitting an adequate number of students from poorer backgrounds (read more here). Universities will also need to contribute to a national scholarship programme to help students from poorer backgrounds.

I can understand the rationale behind this: the most obvious problem with high tuition fees is that they will tend to turn higher education into an exclusive service for the children fo the well-off (as it has been for nearly the entire history of this country). And universities are the ones who ultimately decide who will attend them.

So it makes sense to A) focus on widening participation in universities, and B) make universities responsible for this.

But it feels like unwieldy legislation to me, and its punitive tone seems pretty rich since government policy is going to get more difficult for ANY  university to recruit poorer students.

I want to propose an elegant solution that is already being used by the University of Texas:

The University of Texas automatically accepts the top 10% of students in any Texas high school (read more here). There are two reasons this is a brilliant idea:

First of all, class rank is a much better indicator of a student’s ability to succeed than exam results. Think about it: it’s much more of an achievement to get three Bs at A-level if all your peers got Ds than it is to get three As at A-level if all your peers got A*s. So by basing acceptance on class rank, you are, to put it rather crassly, selecting high-achievers.

Second, acceptance by class rank completely transforms the incentives for parents to choose schools for their children: the school with the best results in the area will suddenly seem much less attractive, and the lowest-performing schools will look very interesting indeed. I can’t think of a better tool for ending the de facto segregation between rich and poor that persists in state education.

Obviously you wouldn’t want every university recruiting the top 10%, but you could still base admissions at least partially on rank. So for example, perhaps you could only APPLY to Oxbridge if you were in the top 1% of your school.

I got this idea from an article written in the Guardian three years ago, which I suddenly remembered this morning while listening to the Today programme.

I’m sure there are problems with this idea that I haven’t thought of yet, so I’d love to know your thoughts about it.

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Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Asher Jacobsberg and Innovation_Unit, Alec Patton. Alec Patton said: UK Universities could learn from Texas, where they admit the top 10% from every high school http://wp.me/pwY1p-EV […]

    Reply
  • 2. tom  |  February 21, 2011 at 8:16 am

    I was so intrigued by this I asked my friend, who is a lecturer at a Texas University. He wrote:

    “My impression (which is admittedly based 100% on hearsay in limited quantities) is that the 10%-rule has had a moderately deleterious effect on the quality of the UT system. The problem is that many of the “10%-ers” are simply not prepared for college, leading to a lowering of standards and higher drop-out rates. I salute the egalitarian impulse motivating the policy, but it seems that in practice it hasn’t been very good for the quality of education, and has impeded UT’s ability to attract top-flight talent from outside the state. This is highly anecdotal, however — probably worth doing some research to find some hard numbers!”

    So, not what I expected, but surely more research is needed!

    Reply
  • 3. alecpatton  |  February 24, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Not what I expected either, and rather disappointing – though I’ve never heard of a university where lecturers didn’t think the standards of their incoming undergraduates were slipping, so it may be that the only thing that makes UT’s lecturers unique is an obvious scapegoat.

    I could see out-of-state talent being a problem, though, because the 10% rule sends a clear message that UT is primarily for Texans – To a great extent, this is as it should be – the US’s state universities exist as a public good for their citizens, and are deliberately set up to give preferential treatment to state residents. However, they are also competing on a national (and international) stage, so anything that makes them look less high-flying will damage them.

    I suppose the big question is whetherbecoming more egalitarian will inevitably look like dropping your standards in the eyes of the public.

    I feel like Malcolm Gladwell ought to be writing about this. It’s his sort of thing.

    Reply

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