AUSTIN, Texas — Debating the most sweeping reform of college admissions policies in more than a decade, Texas senators approved legislation Tuesday that would end automatic entry to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
Practically speaking, most students who make the top 10 percent cut would still be able to get into a public Texas college — some college — for years. But the University of Texas at Austin, where more than 80 percent of the home-state freshman class are admitted under the rule, could start cutting back on such automatic admissions by the fall of 2010 if the changes are approved.
“If you do the math, in the next three years it will be 100 percent. And 100 percent of students coming in under one criterion and one criterion only seems very unfair and seems to tie the hands of the university to not have flexibility to take other types of students,” said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, author of the legislation.
Shapiro has said the top 10 percent law has caused a “brain drain” at UT, prompting exceptional students who fall just outside its parameters to go elsewhere.
In a surprise move, the Senate also tacked on an amendment that would give scholarships, up to the full amount of tuition, to needy students who meet the top 10 percent threshold. Qualified students not admitted to the public college of their choice could use the scholarship at a Texas university that did let them in.
Shapiro called the scholarship provision “very confusing” and said it would likely face revision as the bill moves through the Legislature.
The reform passed the Senate on a 22-8 vote Tuesday evening after several hours of often tense debate. It faces a final Senate vote, probably this week, and must get over several more legislative hurdles before it could become law.
The bill would still give automatic admission to top high school achievers. But it would cap the number universities have to admit.
Under the legislation, known as SB 175, universities could start turning away students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class once they made up 60 percent of a university’s entering freshman body. For now, the bill would only impact UT, but over time it could affect other schools as the number of students seeking admission based on high-school performance goes up.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, has been critical of moves to modify the top 10 percent law but said he agreed “UT needs some relief.” He said he could not support the reform unless the Senate agreed to let the changes expire after six years, allowing the Legislature to revisit the issue.
He voted against the legislation after the Senate adopted an amendment setting the expiration date within eight years.
UT President William Powers has said the state’s flagship university is allowed to use race-based affirmative action and described that as a preferable and more flexible route to diversity. He said the top 10 percent law has provoked an unintended “capacity problem” on campus, and that UT was already planning to eliminate the practice of letting freshmen start in the summer instead of the fall.
The move to modify the top 10 percent law has failed in past sessions and has been met with skepticism by some minority groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
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