Top 10 Percent Law is Still Texas' Best Option
By Senator Royce West
Competitive college admission is by nature a zero sum game. An acceptance letter for one student means a rejection letter for another. With more qualified applicants than available seats at our state's top universities, some qualified students inevitably will not be admitted, and deciding fairly which students get which letter is a particularly difficult problem.
I believe the Top 10 Percent Law provides the wisest and fairest solution to this problem. It is a wise solution because top class rank is our best predictor of college success. Enrollment data indicates that top 10 percent students outperform their non-top 10 percent counterparts in terms of persistence rates, graduation rates, and grade point average - across all disciplines - even when the non-top 10 percent students have higher standardized test scores.
The law is fair because it levels the playing field for students across the state. Class rank controls for geographic and socioeconomic advantages better than any other factor considered in admissions. Comparing students to their peers demonstrates how they have taken advantage of available resources. Whether a student graduates from the wealthiest high school in the state or the poorest, the message is clear: outperform 90 percent of your classmates, and you can go to any public university in Texas. Because it is based on a percentage rather than a raw number, the law is fair to large and small schools.
Ironically, some critics argue that the plan is unfair to students from "better high schools," and some even suggest giving special consideration to the quality of an applicant's high school in admissions decisions. By better high schools, of course, they mean better-funded high schools. Unlike the leveling effect of the Top 10 Percent Law, this policy would be tantamount to making it an advantage to be advantaged.
Other critics argue that the law is a disincentive for academic excellence because students avoid honors and advanced placement courses to maintain a higher grade point average. This argument ignores the extra grade points awarded to students who take these more difficult classes.
Nevertheless, citing flawed logic, some have called for repeal of the law touted by President Bush since his 2000 campaign. While the Top 10 Percent Law is not perfect, I will stand against any attempt to "throw the baby out with the bath water." We cannot replace a system proven to admit qualified students, who are more than ever reflective of Texas' diversity, with an untested system. The most reasoned critique of the law is that admitting too much of a freshman class based solely on class rank limits the ability of universities to consider other factors such as special talents or overcoming economic or social hardship. Some well-intentioned stakeholders propose capping the percentage of students admitted under the law to provide universities with more discretion.
I believe this would be premature for two reasons. First, in 2003 The University of Texas at Austin - the only state university to admit a disproportionate percentage of its freshman class under the law - enrolled its most ethnically diverse freshman class in history. This is evidence that the law is doing what it was designed to do: provide a race-neutral method of admitting a diverse class of highly qualified students.
Secondly, UT-Austin reduced its freshman class by 1,400 students in 2003, resulting in a spike in the percentage of automatic admissions. We do not know if that trend will continue, but we do know that UT-Austin's decision to consider race in admissions will be challenged in court again. If they lose, we do not want to lose the one tool we know is beginning to work.
If, however, at some point a cap becomes necessary, we still must answer the question of which top 10 percent students are left out. The most significant benefit of the law was that it spread the opportunities associated with enrollment at our most prestigious university to students from 200 previously unrepresented rural and inner-city high schools across the state. Texas cannot afford to turn back on this progress. Therefore, any proposal to cap top 10 percent admissions, must be coupled with a method of prioritizing students from historically under-represented high schools.
In the meantime, Texas should concentrate on increasing the number of Tier 1 institutions and equalizing the funding and quality of public education in the state.
Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education.