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June 24, 2004     (512) 463-0300

Senate Subcommittee Examines "Top Ten Percent" Rule

Action by the next Texas Legislature may determine which students get into state universities here in Texas, and which students have to go elsewhere. In 1997, the state passed SB 588, which ordered state universities to automatically admit high school students who are academically in the top ten percent of their graduating class. The hope of legislators supporting the measure was that this would help to promote racial diversity on Texas college campuses. While this guarantees admission for some students, there have been complaints from others that extremely high-performing schools have been shut out because it is more difficult to get into the top ten percent in those schools.

The effects of that 1997 legislation is being studied by the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education. At a meeting today in Austin the subcommittee heard a variety of witnesses describe the state of college admissions. Troy Johnson, President of the Texas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the legislature has damaged the credibility of admissions offices by offering certain state financial aid programs, then cutting them back during times of financial difficulty. He told the subcommittee that admissions officers have recruited students with promises of financial aid, only to have that aid vanish by the time the students are ready for college. As to changes in ethnicity on college campuses, Johnson said that any increased minority enrollment is not exclusively due to the top ten percent rule, that financial aid plays a major role as well.

The subcommittee then reviewed recent court decisions, with testimony from Curt Levey of the Center for Individual Rights, and Lino Graglia and Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas School of Law. Levy testified that stories of students being squeezed out are exaggerated, but that Texas cannot offer the top ten percent guarantee forever, that there are just not enough openings in Texas universities for all the students. He said we need to guarantee that a certain number of students from each school will be admitted, but that number may need to be less that ten percent. Professor Graglia said that the only reason we have race-based admissions is that "many blacks and Mexican-Americans are simply not academically competitive with whites and Asian-Americans" and that the only reason we're considering abandoning the top ten percent rule is because "we've succeeded too well". Professor Laycock said that to legally use race as an admissions criteria you must use it only for achieving diversity, not strict quotas. He also said that minority students admitted due to race are actually "victims" because they have higher dropout rates than other students, which means they may not be properly prepared for college.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos replied to this testimony by saying that before the top ten percent rule, "even with affirmative action, minorities were vastly under-represented" at Texas universities. He said it helped restore diversity and reward students who worked hard in high school. Barrientos said that rather than change the top ten percent law, we should be working to make the high schools better.

Marta Tienda, Principal Investigator, Texas Top 10% Project, Princeton University, described how Texas standards for college admission differ from those of other states. She said that students are leaving Texas not because they can't get into Texas schools, but because they are being recruited by top-tier, out-of-state schools.

James Huffines, Chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, testified that the UT system is committed to structuring a financial aid package that can help all students. Scott Caven, a member of the UT Board of Regents, echoed the Chairman's concerns and said that a task force will have recommendations on that subject and about racial diversity at a later date. Erle Nye, Vice Chairman of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, said that while Texas A&M has made significant improvements in its percentage of minority students, the top ten percent rule is not responsible.

Senator Leticia Van de Putte said that previous efforts at increasing minority enrollment have not been acceptable, given that today's minority groups will soon be the majority of Texans. She said, "If you increase it 10-15-20 percent, you will still be awfully short when the time comes...I'm scared to death that we aren't going to be prepared. I don't know how long we can keep up with the empty promises."

Dr. Bruce Walker, Vice Provost and Director of Admissions at UT-Austin, said that the number of African-American students seems "stubbornly stuck" at about four percent, despite all of the efforts. Frank Ashley, Assistant Provost for Enrollment at Texas A&M said "there are a lot of students who get admitted to Texas A&M, but not UT, and vice versa". He told the committee that even before the top ten percent rule came into effect, practically all of the top ten percent of students were admitted anyway, and that the law hasn't helped very much as far as diversity is concerned.

Luis Figueroa from the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, testified that the current plans for minority enrollment at the state's public universities were "...good, but not good enough", saying the opportunity was not there for minority students. Beth Watson from the Young Conservatives of Texas complimented the universities for their outreach efforts, but said that other states recognize that not all high schools are equal and allow their universities to take that into consideration when deciding whom should be admitted. Public testimony followed.

The Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education is chaired by Senator Royce West. Members include Senators Kip Averitt, Kyle Janek, Todd Staples and Leticia Van de Putte. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.

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