Texas A&M Admissions Proposal Draws Controversy
Critics see plan as attempt to reinstate race-conscious admissions
By Lydia Lum
College Station, Texas
Texas A&M University System regents are considering giving automatic admissions to the flagship campus for the top 20 percent of graduates from 250 so-called “low-performing” high schools statewide.
And as freshmen demographics continue shifting at predominantly White colleges such as the University of Texas, such class rank “percentage plans” are growing more common to diversify enrollment. In 1997, Texas began granting automatic admissions to all state-supported colleges for the top 10 percent of all high school graduates in the state. The 1996 Hopwood court ruling banned affirmative action in Texas college admissions. But by the 2000 fall semester, there was a more than 27 percent increase in the number of high schools represented among UT freshmen since 1996, the final year that race had been an admissions factor, according to UT statistics. Many of those high schools feeding graduates to UT for the first time were inner city, minority schools in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, as well as rural, predominantly White schools. Also in recent years, some racially mixed high schools from South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sent students to UT for the first time.
Still, overall Hispanic and Black enrollment at UT remains at 12 percent and 3 percent respectively, virtually unchanged since 1996. At A&M, enrollment is 8 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Black — again, comparable to five years ago. “They’re just now getting back to pre-Hopwood levels,” says Jose Moreno, assistant professor of educational studies and research analyst at Claremont Graduate University.
Texas Attorney General John Cornyn has not yet weighed in on the legality of the A&M proposal. But nationally, critics already are blasting what they call a poorly cloaked attempt to reinstate race-conscious admissions.
“The high schools are being chosen for their racial and ethnic makeup, in an effort to favor some groups and disfavor others,” states a December letter to Cornyn. “The intent of the regents is clear. In order to increase the number of freshmen to A&M belonging to some racial and ethnic minorities, the admission criteria will be different for those races and ethnicities.”
Among others, the letter is signed by Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who led efforts to ban race as a factor in college admissions in that state and in Washington state. Others who signed the letter include Linda Chavez, President Bush’s former choice for labor secretary who has spoken out against racial preferences.
Some earlier news reports said A&M regents already had approved the measure, but they have not. The admissions plan would apply to high schools deemed by Texas educators as economically and socially disadvantaged based on family income, student eligibility for free lunch programs, test scores, dropout rates, college-going rates and amount of state dollars spent per student. Ethnicity is not a factor, A&M officials say. Students at the 250 high schools would secure admission to A&M as long as they graduate in the top 20 percent of their class and meet minimum grade, test score and college-bound curriculum requirements designated by A&M.
A&M regent Dr. Dionel Aviles says even though the board has not made a final decision, they don’t believe the “Top 20 percent” proposal is race-based. “If it was, I would be the first one not to touch it,” says Aviles, who is Puerto Rican. “We don’t want to circumvent any law. We just want to recruit more students who normally don’t come from those high schools. By coincidence, many of those high schools are in the inner city and have many minority students. There’s no doubt about it. Let’s be realistic.”
Dr. Ronald Douglas, executive vice president and provost of the A&M flagship campus northwest of Houston, says an expanded automatic admissions program would help A&M encourage students who are supposedly being told by high school counselors “not to bother” applying to top-notch colleges. “That’s what we’re hearing from our recruiters,” Douglas says. “But we’re a land-grant college. We are supposed to provide opportunities to those normally not thinking of college. This is the group that is either settling for community college or not going to college at all. These high schools are at the bottom of the heap.”
Elsewhere, Florida and California also offer some students automatic admissions. California has a 4 percent program, Florida a 20 percent program. These plans draw wide appeal because they benefit not only minorities but also Whites. In Florida, Whites make up 67 percent of the academic top 20 percent of high school seniors. Meanwhile, Blacks are 14 percent of the top 20 percent. Moreno and others say it’s too soon to know the impact of Florida’s program, adopted more recently than the one in Texas. In California, the 4 percent plan so far has given only about 100 students admission who might not otherwise have secured acceptance, Moreno says.
Among other things, critics of such plans say they grant admissions to students from third-rate high schools unable to excel in college.
However, A&M officials say their research about Texas’ lower performing schools so far refutes that. Of the current A&M students who came from these targeted high schools, retention runs 90 percent — slightly higher than retention rates of others between their freshman and sophomore years, says Joe Estrada, assistant provost for enrollment. “The value of an education is intact in these students,” Estrada says. “We just don’t get many applications from them, that’s all.”
It’s unclear whether the A&M proposal, if approved, will affect this year’s fall freshman class, Estrada says. Admissions letters are mailed in March.
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