Although students in Texas who graduate in the top 10% of their class get automatic admission to most Texas public colleges and universities, not all of them pursue higher education.
Those students were disproportionately Black and Latino in 2020, The Dallas Morning News reports. Valeria Olivares, who covers higher education for the paper, spoke to Texas Standard about the possible reasons behind those figures. Listen to the interview with Olivares in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about how the pandemic has exacerbated the problem and what higher-education leaders are doing to try to fix it.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: You found that Texas high-school students who graduate in the top 10% of their class but don’t go to college are more likely to be Black or Latino, than white. How big of a gap are we talking about between these groups?
Valeria Oliveras: This is data from before the pandemic, and it basically showed that nearly 17% of the state’s Black students and 16% of Latinos who graduated in the top 10% of their classes were not showing up enrolled at any college or university in the state or the country. And by comparison, only about 10% of white students didn’t show up in the data.
That is a big gap. How do experts explain the differences between these groups?
Black and Latino communities were obviously hit particularly hard, both financially and health-wise, throughout the pandemic. A lot of people have said that, you know, these young adults may have felt pressure to help out at home, for example, and have been opting out to go straight to work after high school. Higher-education leaders say that the labor shortage and industries being desperate for workers further complicates this.
But didn’t you say that these numbers came before the pandemic?
Yes. So this is what they are saying that might be contributing to furthering [the problem] in the past year.
What are the underlying issues that seem to be preventing a large percentage of Black and Latino students in the top 10% from moving on to college, notwithstanding the pandemic?
A lot of people say that it may have to do with finances, while a lot of educators also say that racism, less support from counselors and a lack of diversity and representation on campuses can make the transition into college harder or less desirable for students of color.
What are policymakers talking about possibly doing to try to change this trend? Is this something that is on their radar?
It definitely is. Higher-education leaders and policymakers are trying to make a better case for the benefits of a degree through focused efforts aimed at attracting and retaining these students, such as programs or direct outreach. The state is also working with different colleges, universities and organizations to develop an online platform that would streamline information on financial aid and admissions for students, for example.
I can’t help but wonder how many of these students might not be fully aware of their opportunities when it comes to higher education, including that they are automatically eligible for admission into most publicly funded universities in Texas.
At least two or three of the students that I talked to over the past few months actually mentioned that they didn’t even know that they had been automatically enrolled into state universities until they enrolled and just received the admission. One of them even said that they only found out [when] I interviewed them, and she was already well into her college career.
Tell us a little bit more about some of the young people that you interviewed for this story.
It was obviously a little bit easier to find the students who had pursued a college degree. But most of the students that I talked to were really motivated, themselves, even if they didn’t know about the top 10% plan, where they were guaranteed automatic admission [to most public Texas universities]. They were very motivated to change the statistics and really be a shining hope for other students like themselves.
Did any of the students that you spoke with mention obstacles to their own advancement when they had considered their options?
Definitely. I talked to one student who talked about his insecurities in high school, feeling like he was one of the only Black students at the campus. So he was really nervous about going into college and encountering the same lack of diversity or representation. So that’s something that a lot of colleges are also trying to tackle to be able to attract these students of color.
I presume that the students you spoke with indicated that they would have taken advantage of this opportunity had they known about it. Or did you encounter anyone who said, “No, it’s this is something that I didn’t want to pursue“?
No, all of them definitely chose to pursue the higher education.
So where does this go from here?
Lots of higher-education organizations are really looking forward to the next legislative session. There’s a lot of talk of investing further in colleges and universities and especially community colleges. A lot of people are hoping that the legislators will focus a little bit more on that so there’s more opportunities for these students.