Top 10 percent law stays intact

Legislation enacted in '97 to bring more diversity to colleges

By ELIZABETH PIERSON, 512-323-0622
Valley Morning Star
May 22, 2005

AUSTIN - More than 200 Rio Grande Valley students received a reprieve Saturday, when an attempt to change the state's top 10 percent university admissions law failed in a Senate committee and a key lawmaker declared the issue dead for the session.

The vote likely killed any chance of changing the law, which some state universities have said restricts their ability to recruit students, said Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. The legislative session ends May 30.

"Well, that's that for another two years," a frustrated Shapiro said after a 3-3 committee vote that kept the bill from moving forward. "It's dead. I wanted to keep it moving along so we could debate it on the floor."

The Top 10 Percent Rule requires that any student who finishes high school in the top 10 percent of his class gain automatic admission to any public university in Texas.

It was established by the Legislature in 1997 as a way to have more diverse college campuses without expressly using race as an admissions criterion. It would also bring more socioeconomic and geographic diversity to the big schools, they reasoned.

More than 60 percent of the 2004 University of Texas freshman class was admitted under the law. At Texas A&M University, about 47 percent of the 2004 freshman class were top 10 percent graduates.

But Valley students who attend college outside the Valley have benefited from the rule. Since 2000, Valley high schools have sent a combined 1,257 students to UT in Austin and Texas A&M in College Station under the rule, according to admission numbers from those schools.

In fall 2004, 189 students from the Valley went to UT under the rule and 90 went to Texas A&M.

Hundreds more qualified but decided to attend college in another state, at a private college or in the Valley.

"If this bill passes, the rug's going to get yanked out from underneath some of these parents and children," said state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville before the committee vote.

Oliveira is vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee and, like all other Valley legislators, opposed changing the law.

The top 10 percent law has been under fire for several years.

University administrators and some lawmakers say the law is squeezing out many qualified students, sending them out of state and tying the hands of admissions officials who want to review the whole of students' academic careers.

The law was adopted after a 1996 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision made affirmative action illegal in Texas college admissions. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, allowing universities to use race as one of many decision-making factors.

The law primarily affects the state's flagship universities - UT and Texas A&M - where enrollment is most selective.

State leaders disagree on whether the law has resulted in sufficient increases in diversity.

UT officials are the driving force behind changing the rule.

Next fall, 72 percent of the freshman class at UT will come from students admitted under the rule. They warn that if left unchanged, top 10 percent students will eventually fill all freshman slots and the university will have no discretion in who it admits.

Officials at Valley universities said they stand little to gain or lose from a change in the rule because students who apply to the UT campuses in Brownsville and Edinburg are automatically admitted.

Valley students

In fall 2004, 86 percent of Valley students admitted to UT in Austin were admitted under the Top 10 rule, compared with 66 percent of the entire UT freshman class having been admitted under the rule.

Admission figures from UT show that in the past two years Valley students have come to benefit from the rule with greater frequency than they did from 2000 to 2002.

At Texas A&M, Valley students have relied on the rule slightly more than those in the rest of the state. Still, fewer than half the students from the Valley who went to Texas A&M this year got in under the rule.

Minimal changes

But even those in favor of keeping the rule admit that students who finish in the top 10 percent of their class would have opportunities for college admission even without the rule.

Not all students are motivated to academic success by the rule, said Alan Brown, who was No. 3 in his 2004 graduating class at Los Fresnos High School.

Brown applied to 25 schools nationwide, was accepted to about 20 and ended up at the University of Texas-Pan American where he is on a fast-track program to medical school.

The rule didn't affect his decisions one way or another, he said.

"I think the majority of the top 10 percent students probably didn't even know that rule existed," he said. "It wasn't something that was constantly pounded into our heads."

Sara Nellie Garza, lead counselor at McAllen High School, said she understands why the rule could need revision.

Some of the best students she advises aren't guaranteed admission simply because they challenge themselves with the most difficult curriculum and their grade point averages suffer for it. She is concerned admission to state schools could someday consider only class rank.

"I can see why they looked at it, but I can also see that it is missing some of our very good students," she said.

Regardless of whether the rule is revised, her advice to students won't change: take tough classes so you'll be ready for college, wherever you land, she said.

"We are all keeping our eye on (the bill) in one way or another, but we are not going to stop telling our kids to take the most rigorous courses they can."

An uncertain path

The Senate earlier this session approved a bill by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, that would leave the rule intact but increase high school academic standards to qualify for the automatic admission.

The House took a much different course.

On May 12, after hours of heated debate that touched on education opportunity, fairness, race and history, the House narrowly approved House Bill 2330, which would require universities to accept only half their freshman classes under the Top 10 Percent Rule.

The House passed the bill 74-70 almost entirely along racial lines, with minorities voting against the change. Some rural members also opposed changing the rule that has brought more geographic diversity to the state's largest schools.

The House plan requires that schools consider course difficulty in figuring class rank, which means the first students admitted under the rule would be the ones who had the best grades and took difficult classes.

All eight Valley representatives voted against the bill, saying the rule has brought diversity to the state's largest universities, both geographic and ethnic, without sacrificing academic quality at those schools.

Without the Top 10 Percent Rule, state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, worries that UT Austin could take a turn toward the past when he was a student there among a strong white majority, he said.

"Every attempt we made as students to increase diversity, it was discouraged, not encouraged," Peña said. "The 10 Percent Rule has really allowed a lot of students to experience another way of life."

"If I could believe that these universities would promote diversity and recruit the minority students (I'd agree)," he said. "But their history on that is sketchy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.