Let the truth be told about the Top 10 Percent law
by Royce West
Only a couple of issues - public school finance and the myriad aspects of our healthcare system - have captured more attention than Texas' Top 10 Percent law that governs college admissions. The debate that's simmered since May 2003 is nearing boiling temperature.
To refresh, HB 588 passed into law in 1997, guarantees every Texas high school senior graduating in the top ten percent of his or her class automatic admission to any state college or university.
Before delving into the intricacies of this controversy, I'll offer for clarity, a basic premise. I am an adamant supporter of the Top 10 Rule. I believe it to be the most fair and efficient way to ensure that students from all walks of life and from all parts of our state have access to institutions of higher learning.
In short, the sky is not falling. Opponents of the law suggest that the entire incoming freshman class has been consumed by Top 10 graduates. Maybe it depends on who you talk to. But in reality, this predicament applies to the University of Texas at Austin alone. No other Texas university is even remotely challenged by this unique circumstance.
Critics play a loose word game when it comes to the discussion of admittance and enrollment. Admittance doesn't mean a person actually enrolls and is counted on a class roster. There are always far fewer students enrolled than admitted.
I'm somewhat disappointed that there are those who say that the Top 10 Percent law has failed to improve diversity. A recent column by a UT supporter asserted that only one more African American student was enrolled at UT in 2003 than in 1996, the year before Top 10 became law.
But it was not mentioned that in 1997 and 1998, African American and Hispanic admissions and enrollment plummeted to the lowest points measured between 1996 and 2004. These years followed the Hopwood ruling that banned the use of affirmative action in college admissions. Those numbers improved dramatically in 1999 when more students were admitted under Top 10.
Now, both racial and geographic diversity is at an all-time high. UT-Austin's 2004 freshman class contains 309 African American students. Overall ethnic diversity has peaked for the past two years reaching 43 percent of the university's incoming class for 2004. After decades, UT-Austin is finally beginning to look like Texas.
Some point at statistics that quantify race, but truths be told, UT had used an internal Top 10 procedure to identify qualified students before the law was created.
There are more than 2,000 high schools in Texas. Since the Top 10, 200 more high schools from across the state have sent their best and brightest graduates to UT-Austin. Still, more than 1,100 schools have no students attending UT. This debate has put suburban applicants at odds with would-be Longhorns from urban and rural areas.
It is true that the percentage of Top 10 students admitted and enrolled at UT-Austin reached all-time highs in 2003 and 2004. But it was not widely known that for 2003, UT lowered freshman class slots by nearly 1,400 slots.
Opponents say Top 10 students take class slots from non-Top 10 graduates who have higher SAT scores. True also, but a separate argument questions the validity of entrance exams as a predictor of college success. Fact is that Top 10 students have consistently stayed in school, outperformed and graduated at higher rates than non-Top 10 students with higher SAT scores.
Academic excellence has not been compromised. From 1996 to 2003, Top 10 students with SAT scores ranging from 900 to 1,500 have attained higher grade-point-averages (GPA) than non-Top 10 students with higher SAT scores. I'll venture that because of Top 10 students, the bar has been raised for full file review admits.
University officials from both flagship institutions will say that above all, the Top 10 Percent law has allowed students to rise above their circumstances. Recruiters can guarantee to any high school student that if they study hard and finish in the top 10 percent of their class, they too can attend either of Texas' flagship schools. They can dream burnt orange and maroon and white.
And to think, some people want to take that dream away.