Texas had been running an interesting experiment in an alternative to old fashioned affirmation action. The way it worked was that instead of using an explicitly race-conscious admissions formula, instead the University of Texas just guaranteed that the top ten percent of performers from any high school in Texas could gain admission to a UT campus of their choice. I think that struck a lot of people as a reasonable-sounding alternative to race-based formulae that a lot of folks are uncomfortable with. And above all, it accomplished the goal of ensuring that talented students who simply had the misfortune to grow up in a community with a low performing high school didn’t suffer additional penalties for their bad luck over and above the intrinsic disadvantages caused by attending a low performing school.
But now it seems Texas is going to curb this program, too leaving the state with little in the way of remedial admissions efforts.
This, in turn, highlights the extent to which college admissions in this country is often thought about in a backwards way. Our general understanding is that the most resources ought to flow to the “best” schools and the “best” schools ought to serve the “best” students who “deserve” to be able to go there. Under this framework, any departure from a strict scheme of “merit” looks suspicious. But another way to look at things would be to say that of course relatively able students from relatively privileged backgrounds deserve a higher education, but a larger amount of resources ought to flow to the students with more problems. After all, it’s the worse-prepared kids—typically from less privileged backgrounds—who have the most in the way of educational needs. The marginal dollar of either the taxpayer or the charitable donor will do a lot more for society when spent on people who aren’t already the best students.