Top Percent Policies and the Return to Postsecondary Selectivity

79 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2018 Last revised: 12 Nov 2019

See all articles by Zachary Bleemer

Zachary Bleemer

University of California - Department of Economics

Date Written: 2018


University policies that boost the chances of admission for targeted groups with relatively low standardized test scores are highly controversial. I provide new evidence on the impact of a "top percent" admissions policy called Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) that was implemented by the University of California (UC) system between 2001 and 2011. ELC guaranteed admission to participating UC campuses for the top 4 percent of graduates from most California high schools. I use comprehensive data covering the 1.7 million UC applicants during the ELC era, including information on the colleges attended by each applicant and their early-career labor market outcomes, and a regression discontinuity research design to evaluate the impacts of the program. I find that ELC eligibility increased barely-eligible applicants’ likelihood of enrolling at four selective UC campuses (San Diego, Santa Barbara, Davis, and Irvine) by nearly 6 percentage points. Nearly all of these students would have otherwise enrolled at a less-selective public college or university in California. Overall, barely-eligible ELC participants had higher five-year graduation rates than barely-ineligible students by 22 percentage points, and barely-eligible participants from low-performing high schools had $15,000 higher annual California earnings in their mid-20s compared to their barely-ineligible peers. ELC participants who would have otherwise enrolled at community colleges or California's least-selective public universities benefited the most from UC enrollment under ELC. These results suggest that ELC participants substantially gained from the increase in overall university quality despite having lower average SAT scores than their UC peers by almost 300 points, dispelling concerns about mismatched university 'fit' for the targeted high-GPA low-SAT applicants.

Keywords: Higher Education; Return to Schooling; University Selectivity

JEL Classification: I24, J24, J31, H75

Suggested Citation

Bleemer, Zachary, Top Percent Policies and the Return to Postsecondary Selectivity (2018). Available at SSRN: or

Zachary Bleemer (Contact Author)

University of California - Department of Economics ( email )

Berkeley, CA
United States

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