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Tricky Times for the Top 10 Percent Program

Tricky Times for the Top 10 Percent Program

Both supporters and critics of Texas’ Top 10 Percent law have been surprised at its popularity, but some UT officials and legislators would like to see the program scaled back.

As a Texas state legislator, Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, knows a thing or two about influencing the voting positions of his colleagues. This past spring, when Texas House members sought to scale back the state’s Top 10 Percent program, McReynolds jumped to its defense. He provided other rural legislators with data showing how the program, which guarantees admission to the state’s public colleges and universities to the top 10 percent of Texas’ public high school students, had helped students from their legislative districts gain admission to the University of Texas at Austin.

“In my legislative district, which covers 19 independent school districts, out of 32 students admitted to UT-Austin in 2005, 29 of them were accepted through the Top 10 Percent program,” McReynolds says. “In the rural areas that my colleagues represent, many of them have similarly high rates.”

To the surprise of many political observers, McReynolds and others prevailed, as the House voted 75-64 against a bill that would have limited the number of automatically admitted students to half of a university’s incoming freshman class. A coalition of Black and Hispanic Democratic legislators, aligned with McReynolds and other rural White Democrats, convinced several conservative White Republicans to vote against the measure, which had already passed the state Senate.
Several higher education officials, including UT-Austin administrators, had lobbied for the legislation, arguing that the Top 10 Percent program should be capped.

Triumphant for now, McReynolds and others predict the issue will eventually come back to the Legislature, especially since more than 70 percent of incoming freshmen at UT-Austin in the fall of 2006 qualified for admission under the Top 10 Percent program. At Texas’ other flagship university, Texas A&M University, just less than 50 percent of its fall 2006 freshman class gained admission through the program. But TAMU officials say they are comfortable with the current 50 percent rate.

Supporters vow to fight to preserve the program because they believe it has helped stimulate racial, ethnic and social diversity at the state’s top institutions. Critics of the program, meanwhile, also claim to strongly support diversity in Texas institutions. But they say the law seriously threatens UT-Austin’s ability to attract out-of-state and international students as well as highly talented non-Top 10 Percent students from Texas. Others, who oppose race-conscious diversity policies, say the program is flawed because it admits many Top 10 Percent students with substantially lower test scores than numerous non-Top 10 Percent Texas students who are rejected in the  admissions process.

Is It Working?
The Top 10 Percent program has been surprisingly popular at UT-Austin, more so than either critics or supporters imagined when it was launched in 1998. The program was enacted in response to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School, which Texas officials interpreted as banning the use of race in academic admissions. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, issued an affirmative action ruling in 2003 that permits universities to use race as one of many decision-making factors in admissions. While UT-Austin has since allowed race-conscious admissions for transfer and non-Top 10 Percent applicants, Texas A&M has kept race-neutral admissions policies in place. In late July, an anti-affirmative action organization known as the Project on Fair Representation filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over UT-Austin’s use of race-conscious admissions policies.

Earlier this year, Texas higher education officials testified in support of legislation that would direct universities to continue the Top 10 Percent policy until they reached a 50 percent cap. After that point, schools would admit additional students based on a holistic review process.

“It would help our diversity efforts if we have more capacity for holistic review in a larger part of our class,” UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. told Texas House Higher Education Committee members during a public hearing earlier this year. “What we would like is relief that does not do away with the Top 10 Percent rule, but has about 40 to 50 percent of our students coming through the Top 10 percent rule.”

Dr. Kevin T. Leicht, a sociology professor at the University of Iowa, says UT-Austin could be considered a “victim of its own success.” Leicht and other researchers, led by Princeton University’s Dr. Marta Tienda, authored a report in 2003 that concluded that the Top 10 Percent program was failing to broaden racial and ethnic diversity in many of Texas’ schools. But today, Leicht says UT-Austin is actually exceeding pre-Hopwood diversity levels.

In 2006, UT-Austin recorded its highest-ever enrollment numbers for Hispanic and Black students — 7,453 Hispanics (15 percent of the student population) and 1,939 Blacks (3.9 percent of the student population). The previous high enrollments for these two ethnic groups were 7,013 Hispanics in 2005 and 1,911 Blacks in 1996.

The 15 percent Hispanic figure was a 6.3 percent increase over fall 2005, when Hispanics accounted for 14.1 percent of the student population. Fall 2006 data revealed a 5.2 percent increase in Black students over fall 2005, when 1,843 Blacks accounted for 3.7 percent of the student population.

Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, says UT-Austin deserves credit for adhering to the Top 10 Percent law. One of the original authors of the law, Olivas also credits the university for allowing race-conscious admissions after the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision.

He says the university should stay with the program despite the efforts from its current leadership to scale it back.

“What the Texas 10 percent plan has done is demonstrate that you can make decisions about highly qualified kids largely on how well they rank in [their high school] class,” Olivas says. “I think that states will be better off weighing rank in class more heavily than they do performance on a test on a Saturday afternoon.”

Texas A&M officials say they believe the Top 10 Percent law has been one of several factors that’s enabled the College Station campus to rebound from post-Hopwood drops in Black and Hispanic enrollment. Dr. Alice G. Reinarz, TAMU’s assistant provost for enrollment, says Hispanic freshman enrollment reached its highest proportion and highest total in school history in fall 2006.

A total of 1,102 Hispanics, or 14.1 percent of the total student body, enrolled in the freshman class in fall 2006. Hispanic freshman enrollment hit a post-Hopwood low in 1999, with 570 students, or 8.5 percent, Reinarz says.

Black freshman enrollment at Texas A&M has also been increasing since the Hopwood decision. The university enrolled 280 Black freshmen in fall 2006. The all-time high for Black freshman enrollment at the school was 290 in 1994.

“I think the biggest benefit of the Top 10 Percent program is that it provides an incentive for students who might not otherwise have considered Texas A&M,” Reinarz says.

One outspoken critic of the program is Ilya Somin, a law professor at
George Mason University in Virginia.

Somin argues that the law is more objectionable than traditional affirmative action policies because it permits Texas schools to admit students who’d likely not have gained admission under the original race-conscious program.

“Rarely, if ever, do traditional affirmative action plans determine the admission of more than 15 to 20 percent of a school’s student body,” he has written. “By contrast, at the University of Texas at Austin, over 70 percent of the student body was admitted under the 10 percent plan. While some of these students would surely have gotten in anyway, it is highly likely that the 10 percent plan leads to much larger sacrifices of academic merit than do racial preferences similar to those used at most other academic institutions.”

Anticipating the Future
Leicht says Texas has widened access to its elite flagship schools so much that UT-Austin has been overwhelmed.

“The Texas problem is a big population, two flagship campuses, and far too few slots,” he says. “What the university system needs to do is figure out ways to make all of the campuses more appealing. Right now, there’s great pressure on getting into the Austin campus and trying to get onto the Texas A&M campus.

“The thing we anticipated [in our 2003 report] is there’s also the side benefit of actually having these outreach activities where the university administrators go to different high schools in places where a big campus administrator has never appeared in person,” he continues. “To some extent, the improvement in enrollment is a credit to the administrators that have done this.”

Dr. Gregory Vincent, the vice president for diversity and community engagement at UT-Austin, says that while the Top 10 Percent program has transformed academic admissions, the campus has also evolved its outreach efforts. He cites the school’s Longhorn Scholars program as one positive example. The program targets roughly 70 Texas high schools that had rarely, if ever, sent graduates to UT-Austin before the Top 10 Percent program.

“Last year, we exceeded our pre-Hopwood numbers. I’m convinced that we will continue with that upward trajectory,” Vincent says.

– Ronald Roach

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