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Texas Limits '10%' Admissions

June 1, 2009

The "10 percent" plan in Texas has been one of the most successful experiments ever tried to get more minority students into top public universities with race-neutral criteria. It spawned similar (if less ambitious) programs in California and Florida and prompted numerous debates about equity in higher education admissions. At the behest of the University of Texas at Austin and suburban politicians, and following several years of debate, the Texas Legislature on Saturday agreed to a plan that will limit the use of the system so that Austin is required to fill only 75 percent of its freshman slots for Texans under the program.

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has pushed for changes in the admissions system and is expected to sign the legislation.

"10 percent" refers to a law adopted in Texas in 1997 that requires all public colleges and universities to admit any Texas applicant who graduated from the top 10 percent of his or her high school class. The law was adopted in the wake of a federal appeals court ruling -- since superseded by a Supreme Court ruling in another case -- that barred public colleges from considering race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.

Texas has many high schools that are overwhelmingly Latino or black -- so the thinking of those who crafted the law was that 10 percent admissions would ensure that diversity would be maintained at competitive universities like UT-Austin, which would admit the top graduates of such high schools. As time has gone on, the system has worked as predicted, increasing minority enrollments at UT-Austin and also resulting in the admission of rural white students who attended high schools that previously didn't send many students to the flagship.

While the University of Texas at Austin now has the legal right to practice affirmative action in admissions (and does so), many advocates for minority students have viewed percent plans as a key tool for promoting diversity because these plans are race neutral and because they result in admissions decisions being based on class rank, not on the SAT or ACT, standardized tests on which black and Latino students score, on average, at lower levels than do white and Asian students.

The problem with percent admissions, according UT-Austin, is that it's too popular. "We were going to lose control over our class," William Powers Jr., president of the university, said in an interview Sunday. He called the Legislature's action "a very positive development."

In the admissions process for the class that will enter in the fall, 86 percent of Texans admitted were admitted on the basis of being in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Even at a university where out-of-state admissions are minimal (only 7 percent this year), Powers said that's not enough flexibility for the university.

Even though the university attracts outstanding students through 10 percent admissions, Powers said, there are gaps. There are not enough students enrolling that way who want to major in key areas such as geosciences, computer engineering and education. Earlier this year, Powers also suggested (in an argument that received plenty of attention from non-academics in Texas) that 10 percent was making it difficult to recruit athletes in key sports, since many of the best athletes are not in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

To those who question why there is any need to tinker with a system that has resulted in considerable diversity (45 percent this year are members of minority groups), Powers said that "there is a capacity problem." Texas has nearly 50,000 students in all. Without a change in the admissions law, "we'd have to become a 55,000 student university, or 60,000 or 65,000 and there are no resources to do that." (The original law applied statewide, but UT-Austin, the focus of the changes in the law, is the only university where admissions under 10 percent have become a major issue.)

While Powers stressed the educational and capacity issues, much of the controversy about changing 10 percent arose from the strong push for change from suburban legislators whose (generally white) constituents were frustrated by the law. Since the law was enacted, there have been steadily growing complaints from suburbs with well financed and academically rigorous high schools that their students below the top 10 percent but in the top 20 percent (or some other figure) were more qualified than some of those being admitted from other high schools, without the same academic resources. Parents and counselors talked about talented students in the top 11 percent who might have been accepted previously, but were now losing out.

Those arguments set up an interesting political dynamic in Austin, where the Legislature at the last minute two years ago failed to change the 10 percent law, but this year did so only after considerable negotiations between the Senate (which would have scaled back the law further) and the House, which resisted. The current version of 10 percent has strong support not only from minority lawmakers, but also from white rural legislators.

Michael Olivas is among those concerned about changes in 10 percent, although he noted that "it could have been worse," given the desire of some legislators to repeal the law entirely or let it apply only to a small percentage of UT students. Olivas is director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston, and he advised the late Irma Rangel, the state legislator who led the efforts to enact the law in the first place.

Olivas said he was troubled by the "racially coded" comments made by those talking about outstanding suburban students losing slots at the state's flagship. He noted that the well prepared white students who were not in the top 10 percent of their classes had many other options, and that not getting into UT was not as much of a disaster as some implied. "It wasn't as if they were thrown off into the streets," he said. "Some of the arguments that have been used against 10 percent have been ridiculous and demeaning."

The challenge for the University of Texas now, he said, will be to demonstrate that the change it wanted in the admissions law was not an attempt to step back on diversity. Olivas said he and others will be looking to see what happens in the years ahead.

The overlooked reality, Olivas said, was the success of 10 percent in not only getting students in, but in identifying a more diverse group of students who also succeeded at Austin. He said that many high schools in Texas, prior to 10 percent, just assumed that their students wouldn't get in to UT-Austin and didn't bother to try. The law, he said, encouraged them to apply, and when they not only were admitted, but graduated, these local communities started to see the flagship as a real possibility.

"The ironic thing here is that 10 percent has been so successful," Olivas said. "Every internal study that UT Austin has done or that the UT system has conducted and every external study have shown that the 10 percent students, relative to others, have done better by any measure -- lower attrition rates, graduate in shorter time periods -- and the law has widened the base of high schools from which students come." The university and legislators have spent years pushing to change a law that "by any measure of public policy is a success."

 

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