Honors News: August 20, 2015–Is Class Rank a Disappearing Metric?

Of great importance to college applicants in some states (Texas, especially) high school class rank is of paramount importance. Texas high school grads ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes (top 7% at UT Austin for 2015) gain automatic acceptance to state schools, with UT Austin capping automatic admissions at 75% of the total freshman class.

According to the National Association of College Admissions C0unselors (NACAC), only 15% of colleges now consider class rank on its own to be of “considerable importance.”

“It’s disappearing as a metric,” says Lee Coffin, a NACAC member and dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts.

NACAC reports that “a student’s grades in college-prep classes is considered the top factor in college admission decisions, followed by the strength of their curriculum, test scores and overall grade-point average, data show.

“The shift away from class rank is related, in part, to the widespread adoption of weighted grades for students who take honors or advanced classes.

“High school officials ‘want students to focus on their own accomplishments without worrying so much where they fall in the pecking order,’ writes reporter Moriah Balingit of the Washington Post. ‘And with the proliferation of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses — which can boost a student’s grade-point average above a 4.0 — emphasizing rank could push students to overload themselves during their high school years.'”

In the case of UC Berkeley, students who are in the top 9% of statewide high school grads, or in the top 9% of their own high school class, meet only a basic threshold for admission. They must still met the “holistic” requirements of UC Berkeley, which include the following:

    • Your weighted and unweighted grade point average (calculated using 10th and 11th grade UC-approved courses only)
    • Your planned 12th grade courses
    • Your pattern of grades over time
    • The number of college preparatory, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), honors and transferable college courses you have completed
    • Your level of achievement in those courses relative to other UC applicants at your school
    • Your scores on AP or IB exams
    • Your scores on the ACT plus writing or the SAT reasoning test.

These additional requirements go a long way toward ensuring that UC Berkeley students in the top 9% also have other credentials that point toward high academic achievement, especially success with rigorous courses (AP, etc).

Using an automatic percentage as the basis for admission absent additional requirements that evaluate the real academic quality of high school courses is problematic.

One reason is that it encourages some students to transfer to a high school with easier classes and less competition in order to improve class standing.

Another reason is that the test scores of students admitted via automatic admission are somewhat lower; in the case of UT Austin, automatic admits averaged 28 on the ACT, while holistic admits had an average ACT of 30.

The result is a sense of unfairness among students who have completed rigorous coursework at more competitive high schools, made excellent grades, earned high test scores, but not quite made it to the top 10%, or 7% in the case of UT Austin. (UT Austin will admit the top 8% in 2016.)

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.

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The Top 10 Percent Rule in Texas: Highly Questionable Results

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from the most recent issue of The Alcalde, the alumni publication of the University of Texas at Austin. The automatic admission of a student in the top 10 percent of  his or her high school class, in place since 1997, has had unintended consequences for minority students and non-minority students alike.

By 2008, more than 80 percent of incoming freshman at UT-Austin were admitted under the [10 percent] rule, leaving the university to choose less than 20 percent of its own incoming class. Then-chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT-Austin president Bill Powers appealed to the 2009 Texas Legislature to cap automatic admissions at 50 percent of each incoming class. Without action, they predicted, UT wouldn’t be able to admit any students from outside the U.S. or Texas by 2015.

Legislators intervened specifically for UT-Austin, but compromised on a 75 percent cap. Since then, the university has admitted the top one percent, two percent, and so on until it reached the cap, which means that for the incoming class of 2019, UT-Austin’s top 10 Percent Law is really a top eight percent rule.

As ProPublica notes, the competition for non-automatic admission to UT in 2008 was tougher than getting into Harvard.

While applications from minority students more than doubled in the first 10 years of the law, its success is still debatable. A 2012 Princeton study of UT and Texas A&M concluded that the law actually benefited white students more than Hispanic students. While test scores rose at smaller state universities, applicants at the flagships came from more affluent, less diverse high schools and graduates from poorer schools, particularly Hispanic graduates, were less likely to apply.

In a state-required report compiled in the fall of 2014, UT officials noted that between 2013-14, African-American and Hispanic representation actually decreased, as did the number of admitted and enrolled first-generation students and those from lower socioeconomic groups.

One of the barriers to coming to UT, presumably, is cost. If, for example, you come from San Perlita, at Texas’ southern tip, where more than half of residents under 18 live below the poverty line, heading more than 300 miles north just to pay tuition, rent, and buy books for at least four years is a daunting prospect. In response to the declining numbers from populations meant to be served by the law, UT has launched the Texas Advance scholarship program, which the university says could essentially offset tuition when paired with state and federal aid.

While a handful of bills relating to the rule have been filed during the 2015 legislative session, only one would fundamentally change it, even then only altering it to automatically admit students from the top eight percent. That rule wouldn’t change much at UT, which is already essentially a top eight percent institution. Despite questions of its effect and effectiveness, it seems the law will stick around, at least for a while.