In the 1990s, Florida and Texas stopped using affirmative action as a factor in state university admissions. Instead, the states opted for programs that grant top high school seniors guaranteed admission to state schools.
Lately the Texas program, signed into law by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1997, has a huge bull’s-eye draped over it. Critics say Top 10 Percent takes admissions discretion away from state universities and hurts deserving high school seniors who aren’t in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. The Texas Legislature has already defeated one bill that would have watered down the program’s impact, and there have even been attempts to repeal the Top 10 law altogether.
A measure is currently winding its way through the Texas House of Representatives that would cap the number of Top 10 students coming into a state university’s freshman class at 50 percent. This would free up the remaining slots, which could be filled using other admissions criteria.
By contrast, there’s no push to dismantle or modify Florida’s Talented 20 program, which was created by Bush’s younger brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999. Critics say the Talented 20 isn’t in anyone’s crosshairs because it’s always been focused more on rhetoric than substance.
Texas’ Top 10 law stems from Hopwood v. Texas, a 1996 lawsuit filed on behalf of White University of Texas Law School applicants who believed they were denied admission in favor of less qualified minority applicants.
As a result of the case, Texas received a federal order to scuttle race-based state university admissions. Not wishing to derail a system that had been making gains in minority enrollment, Texas politicos, college administrators and faculty established the Top 10 program.
“I helped develop it,” says Jorge Chapa, who at the time was a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “What really makes a difference in improving minority admissions is making the requirements for admission clear and unambiguous.”
The reason the Top 10 program has so many detractors and opponents in Texas, is “because it’s working,” says Chapa, presently a sociology professor with the University of Illinois.
At UT-Austin, Texas’ flagship school, Hispanic freshman enrollment has increased from 13 percent in 1997 to 19 percent in 2006. Black enrollment dipped to 4 percent in 1997, compared with 5 percent the previous year, but rebounded to 7 percent in 2006.
White enrollment, meanwhile, has decreased from 61 percent in 1997 to 52 percent in 2006, according to UT-Austin statistics.
“People with political connections can’t get their kids into the University of Texas at Austin like they used to be able to,” Chapa says. “Plus Top 10 Percent takes discretion away from admissions officers. Admissions boards are mesmerized by SAT scores, so that’s a good thing.”
But UT-Austin President William Powers doesn’t agree. He recently testified before state lawmakers on behalf of the new House bill.
At Powers’ school, 72 percent of the university’s latest freshmen class was comprised of Top 10 students.
“The opponents of the law feel that admitting 72 percent of an admitted class is too large of a percent to be based on one variable,” says Gary M. Lavergne, who is in charge of admissions research at UT-Austin. “We’re really the only university that has a problem, because such a large percentage of these kids want to come here.”
Several hundred miles to the east, in Florida, not many people are paying much attention to the Talented 20, which is designed to get the top 20 percent of Florida high school seniors into state colleges and universities.
“In Florida, the [Talented 20] plan has almost no bite, it has almost no effect,” says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. “Nobody’s very disturbed about it, because it actually does very little.”
The Civil Right Project took an in-depth look at the Talented 20 in 2003, and the resulting report eviscerated Florida’s program to replace affirmative action in university admissions.
Among other things, the report claims the Talented 20 fails to guarantee admission to the crème de la crème of Florida’s state schools, like the Texas program does. Instead, Talented 20 students must meet individual admission requirements for state colleges.
The Civil Rights Project report also notes that Florida’s Talented 20 lacks the extensive freshman support mechanisms found in Texas’ Top 10.
Jeb Bush created Talented 20 in an effort to preempt affirmative action foe Ward Connerly’s bid to bring his movement to the Sunshine State.
“We found that the program was really a failure on a pretty massive scale,” Orfield says of his organization’s 2003 study.
Calls to the Florida Department of Education seeking comment about the Talented 20 program were not responded to, nor were requests for data indicating how the program has functioned since its inception.
–Blair S. Walker
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