House looks to cap Top Ten to the dismay of many

by Austin Van Zant
May 13, 2005

This week, the Texas House of Representatives approved capping the Top Ten Percent automatic admissions law at 50 percent in what is purportedly a shift to a more holistic admissions process for public universities across the state. The University of Texas at Austin has long complained that the Top Ten law only looks at one factor, a high school student's grade point average (GPA), for admissions, and this discriminates against students who have other qualities like musical talents.

The Quorum Report, a Capitol insider's website, reported that representatives do not view passage of the bill as a mandate for change. "That was not an overwhelming vote for the bill," said Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), referring to a 75-69 second reading vote for Morrison's legislation on Wednesday. "I had many members come up and tell me they did not want to vote for it but felt pressured to do so. It was not a mandate from the House to undo the Top 10 Percent law in any significant way." The proposal passed on its third and final reading Thursday largely along party lines - with Rep. Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs) as the sole Democrat who voted for the proposal - by a 4 vote margin, 73-69.

Representatives on Wednesday argued on the House floor for nearly five hours, in one of the most heated debates this session, about university students and diversity, equality, and fairness. Not only did most representatives of non-Anglo ethnic backgrounds vehemently oppose the change in law, but rural moderates like Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin) spoke passionately about how the Top Ten law benefited students like his son, who will graduate with soon with a doctorate from UT-Austin, who would have never been received by UT in the first place.

Many pointed to the fact that since the implementation of the Top Ten law, the number of high schools represented at UT-Austin in the entering freshman classes has increased by 200 between 1996 and 2004. Based on numbers from the UT-Austin admissions office, the number of feeder schools has increased from 616 in 1996 to 815 in 2004. (Source(pdf))

Roughly 83 percent of rural students currently enrolled at UT-Austin were admitted under the Top Ten law. Increasing access to rural students, who have traditionally been in the lower income bracket, translates to increasing class diversity. Moreover, no other college admissions plan has been better at achieving this goal.

Every opponent of the cap pointed to the wild success of the program. Not only have poor rural kids gone to college, they argued, but people of color too. Groups like the NAACP, LULAC, and UT Watch have all argued for the preservation of this great program.

UT-Austin: Only University with a Top Ten Problem?

Proponents of the cap overlooked the benefits to ethnic and class diversity and cited the fact that UT-Austin admitted 72 percent of its freshman class for the fall 2005 semester under the Top Ten law. However, Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) raised a question on UT-Austin's admissions policies. He asked about the size of the entering freshman class, which has been declining during the past several years.

"We're diagnosing the wrong problem," he said. "It's not the top 10 percent rule, it's that UT is decreasing their enrollment. Why would they do that?"

But UT President Larry Faulkner said that the freshman class size has stayed constant for several years.

What has been decreasing, he said, is the overall enrollment of the school, mostly because students are graduating at a faster rate.

However, looking at the actual numbers, Rep. Villarreal is right and Faulkner is wrong. While there are no verifiable numbers on increasing graduation rates on how they relate to declining enrollment numbers, there is evidence that UT has decreased its freshman class over the past 3 years.


UT-Austin Entering Freshman Class, Fall Semester

  # Admitted # Applied
2002 7,935 22,179
2003 6,544 24,519
2004 6,795 23,008
Source: UT-Austin's Office of Institutional Research

The UT-Austin administration initially decreased enrollment in the fall semester of 2003, the fall semester following tuition deregulation: "Because of serious enrollment pressures in 2002, the entire entering class was reduced by almost 18% in 2003." (Source(pdf)) Looking at the raw numbers from UT-Austin's Office of Institutional Research, the number of students admitted has dropped by roughly 1,000 per freshman class over the past two years, despite an increase in applications.

In 2004, 6,795 first-time freshman and transfer students were admitted while 23,008 students applied. In 2003, 6,544 first-time freshman and transfer students were admitted while 24,519 students applied. In 2002, though, 7,935 first-time freshman and transfer students were admitted while 22,179 students applied. So clearly, the University severely cut its incoming class in fall 2003 and, while those numbers slightly increased last fall, UT-Austin has not admitted nearly as many students as it did during the fall semester of 2002.

This could help to explain the higher proportion of students admitted under the Top Ten law. Without a cap on Top Ten students, the actual number of Top Ten students would either remain the same or possibly slightly increase. But by cutting the incoming class by nearly 20 percent, the proportion of Top Ten students admitted to non-Top Ten students increases tremendously.

Rep. Villarreal made this point on the House floor (without the actual numbers though), and other representatives such as Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) proposed a 65 percent cap that applied only to UT-Austin as well as an interim study. Gallego stated correctly that no other university in the entire state has a problem with Top Ten. Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) referenced the fact that the University of Houston has actually enacted a Top Twenty Percent plan due to the tremendous success of Top Ten.

Impacts from this Top Ten Change

Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston) raised the question of changing a law that would be applied statewide based on problems at a single university. Hochberg said that two years ago, UT begged the Legislature to deregulate tuition since "they said they wouldn't increase tuition too much." He continued that we have seen the consequences from changing a statewide law to accommodate one special interest, so why would we repeat this - especially when that special interest is the same university!

Other representatives spoke about how Texas A&M, the other Texas flagship, wouldn't even be impacted if the proposed cap went through. Texas A&M only admitted 47 percent of their freshman class last fall under Top Ten. Other universities have even lower numbers, but opponents of the cap worried about the impacts down the road.

So, why the rush to UT-Austin? Many citizens and lawmakers see it as the best university in the state. So following this thinking, the solution ought to be better funding public universities across the state. Unfortunately, this suggestion was largely ignored.

Alternative Top Ten Change Exists

Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), the author of House Bill 2330 - the bill that proposes the Top Ten cap - and tuition deregulation last session, stated that the 50 percent cap was a "compromise." She said, "This is a compromise of all bills (on the subject) to keep the positive part of the top 10 percent law and its beneficial aspects, but it addresses the unintentional consequences that have taken place."

Morrison, who - in the greatest irony - never graduated from college herself, failed to mention that the compromise was only between herself and the 4 other representatives wishing to either cap or kill Top Ten, who are not by coincidence all relatively well-to-do Caucasians. Morrison defends her bill since it would encourage universities to "adopt admissions policies that further the goals of 'Closing the Gaps', " which is the plan to "close the gaps" between minority students and Caucasian students. However, this is an unfunded encouragement, which is meaningless in enforcement.

Sen. Royce West, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education and Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, has authored Senate Bill 333 to address concerns over the Top Ten law. SB 333, and its supplement SB 936, would strengthen high school curriculum over concerns that students purposefully take easier classes to qualify for Top Ten. SB 333 was voted out of the Senate earlier in the week and will be referred to the House Committee on Higher Education, which is chaired by Rep. Morrison. Likewise, HB 2330 will be referred to the Senate Subcommitte on Higher Education.

So we can all expect a showdown between the two chairs as to which plan would pass, but - to end on a bright note - the upper hand clearly goes to Sen. West since students would be unimpacted or even better off if neither plan passed. So lobby the Senate and contact Sen. West to kill HB 2330 to prevent Morrison and other representatives from delivering a huge loss to students who have benefited from this successful plan. Something can still be done!

Van Zant is a former member of UT Watch (www.utwatch.org) and is currently a policy analyst for the Legislative Study Group, a caucus in the Texas House of Representatives.




General Talking Points on HB 2330: The Top 10% Law Works for Texans

"Critics complain that top 10% students from Brownsville, Dallas or rural East Texas are less deserving than non-top 10 students from Plano, Highland Park, or Eanes. Therefore, they argue that Texas is losing its brightest and best students ... But UT- Austin's own figures show that top 10% students stay in college in greater numbers and graduate faster than non-top 10 students. It's true that top 10 students are taking a greater share of seats at UT and A&M. But there are still plenty of seats available at those institutions for others because thousands of students who are admitted don't enroll."
- Austin American Statesman editorial, 4-15-05

"82% of Texans support the top 10% law as it stands."
- Scripps Howard Texas Poll, 2005

Data Shows no "Brain Drain" from UT and A&M

  • Critics argue the top 10% law forces good students to leave the state to receive their education. But a Princeton study found the top 10% law does not significantly effect deserving students' choices - finding that 96%of students from feeder high schools in the second 10 percent of their class were able to attend UT-Austin or Texas A&M if that was their desire.

    "However, this generalization does not apply to feeder high school graduates. In fact, seniors who graduate from feeder high schools ranked in the second 10% of their class are equally likely to prefer and to enroll out-of-state as their top decile counterparts." (page 17)

    "Moreover, and contrary to media anecdotes that second decile feeder school students denied access to UT or A&M leave the state, our data show that 96 percent of second decile feeder high school graduates who identify UT or A&M as their first preference actually matriculate there in the following fall ... If anything, the very few second decile feeder school students who are denied admission to one of the flagships enroll at other Texas institutions, not out-of-state." (page 20)

    - "Flagships, Feeders, and the Texas Top 10% Law: A Test of the "Brain Drain" Hypothesis"(pdf), The Texas Higher Education Opportunity Project

  • Students admitted under the top 10% law are more competitive that other students admitted under other criteria. They compete with other students in their high schools to rank in the top ten percent, and in college, they compete favorably with students from districts that had more resources and funding.
  • Based on their GPA after their freshman year at UT-Austin, students admitted to UT-Austin under the top 10% law have performed better than other students. Since the law was enacted, "top 10" freshmen GPA's have ranged from 3.21 to 3.26, while non-top 10 freshmen GPA's have ranged from 2.65 to 3.05.
  • UT's own data shows that over 51% of top 10% students graduate in four years, compared to only 39.6% of other students.

The "Top 10%" Law has increased diversity and opened the doors flagship universities minority and rural students. Capping the number of students admitted under the top 10% law will turn back the clock and decrease opportunity for minority and rural students.

  • According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, in 2003, 83.6 % of rural students that enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin were admitted under the Top 10% law. 61% of rural students that enrolled in 2003 at Texas A & M were admitted under the top 10% law. These figures have increased since 1998.
  • From 1996 to 2004, the number of Texas High schools represented in UT-Austin's incoming freshman class has increased by 200.
  • 72% of minority students that enrolled in 2003 at the University of Texas at Austin were admitted under the Top 10% law.

Diversity at Texas' flagship institutions remains woefully inadequate, indicating the top 10% law and other measures to increase opportunity should be enhanced, not rolled back. African Americans make up 11.5% of the Texas population and Hispanics 32%, however, UT and A&M enrollment lag behind.

  • African-American students comprise less than 4% of UT-Austin undergraduate students and only 2% of the Texas A&M undergraduate student body.
  • Hispanic students account for 14.3% of UT-Austin undergrads and only 9.3% of undergraduate students at Texas A&M.
  • Asian students account for 17.08% of undergrads at UT-Austin and only 3 percent of Texas A&M University

The Facts Support the Top 10% Law

  • It is impossible to calculate and accurately cap the number of students admitted only because of the top 10% law. Many top 10% students would be admitted under other admissions criteria, but without the top 10% law, data shows the admission of minority and rural students would suffer.
  • The top 10% law provides an incentive for students to work harder. The Princeton study found that high school students who know about the top 10% law are five times more likely to plan to attend a four year college.
  • Critics argue the top 10% law is no longer necessary because the Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race in admission in the Michigan case. This argument ignores students from rural areas that are not positively affected by race based admissions.

Conclusion

The top ten percent rule is not the problem with the Texas higher education system. The real problem is an appalling lack of diversity at our top schools. We must address the fundamental disparities that keep access to higher education out of reach for too many young Texans. Just because Texas institutions can once again use race or ethnicity as an admissions factor does not mean that they will. Texas A&M has already decided to forgo the use of race or ethnicity in admissions. It is likely that each of Texas' 51 public colleges and universities will pursue their own unique admissions policy. Eliminating or curtailing the top ten percent rule before we can measure the effect of these policies would be premature.