2016 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom winner

The Price of Admission

Matthew Watkins, Neena Satija, Becca Aaronson

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting & PRX
The Texas Tribune

Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom


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About the Project

In 1997, Texas lawmakers thought they’d solved the eternal challenge of achieving diversity on college campuses. The “Top 10 Percent Rule” was the magic formula to ensure more minorities would get into the state’s best public universities.

But nearly two decades later, the rule hasn’t achieved nearly the level of campus diversity its backers envisioned. The University of Texas at Austin — the school most affected by the law — says it has hurt its national prestige. And the rule is now at the center of a widely watched U.S. Supreme Court Case, Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, that could end affirmative action in Texas, and possibly nationwide.

In “The Price of Admission,” journalists from The Texas Tribune and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal use stellar storytelling, detailed data analysis, engaging visuals and an elegant presentation to unravel the tangled web of affirmative action challenges facing Texas — already a majority-minority state. The written features and data tools, in concert with a moving Reveal podcast, ensure that readers and listeners alike understand just what’s at stake for all sides in the debate.

Our reporters spent months researching the Top 10 Percent Rule and hearing from the stakeholders who created it. They traveled regularly from Austin to Dallas to establish trust with high school administrators, counselors and students — relationships that produced rare first-person accounts of how the Top 10 Percent Rule was working or falling. Reporters also worked closely with university administrators to see the true impact of the rule on higher education.

That attention to detail came through in vivid and heart-wrenching stories: about disparities between high schools mere miles apart, about students ashamed to be struggling at competitive universities. It came through in visualizations and interactives, like one that let users compare how many students each Texas public high school sent to the University of Texas at Austin. And it came through in the project’s presentation, a mobile-first design aimed at attracting the same young people we were writing about.

To reach the widest-possible audience, the Tribune partnered with Reveal to create a compelling podcast on the Top 10 Percent Rule, and hosted a live event in conjunction with Austin’s community college system after the project’s launch to discuss the issues the series raised.

We used Twitter and Facebook to aggressively promote “The Price of Admission,” and the response was gratifying. The project went viral, as people across the nation shared our stories, and their own. Students, teachers, administrators, parents — they all weighed in, often in surprising and unexpected ways. The project created a forum for respectful debate and dialogue around an emotionally charged topic.

Thanks to “The Price of Admission,” when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Fisher case this summer, our audience will have a far deeper understanding of what it means and who it affects. Our readers and listeners will have faces and voices to connect to one of the nation’s most complex conundrums.