The Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education considered legislation today that would change the state's top-ten-percent admission rule. Under the rule, a Texas high school senior that graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her class is automatically admitted to any Texas state school. This law was created in an effort to increase diversity at Texas universities, but some officials say that the law is making class rank the only factor in determining admission. This is especially true, says University of Texas Board of Regents Chairman Jim Huffines, of the state's two largest universities, UT at Austin and Texas A&M. The percentage of incoming freshmen at UT-Austin admitted under the rule has increased from 37 percent seven years ago to 72 percent for this year's incoming class. "Eventually, all admissions will be top 10 percent," said Huffines. "It is my feeling that it is fundamentally unfair for one standard to be used in this fashion, essentially eviscerating our commitment to holistic admission."
UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner echoes the concerns of the Regent chairman. The top 10 percent rule has increased diversity at UT, up 68 percent for African-Americans since 1997, by providing the foundation for a deeper diversity-expansion program. Faulkner supports some kind of statutory admission guarantee, only with greater flexibility granted toward admissions departments. "Students are not one-dimensional," said Faulkner. "A university needs room in its admissions decisions to consider criteria other than high school class rank."
Faulkner proposed several options that he sees as viable changes to the current law. He advocates a cap on guaranteed admissions, set at 50 percent of an incoming class, admitting those in the top 1 percent first, then moving down until the cap is reached. Given current trends, said Faulkner, guaranteed admission would be granted to the top 6 percent or so. He also proposed changing the threshold to the top 5 percent, or repealing the law altogether. What the Legislature must not do, he said, is leave the law how it is. "Change is needed because UT-Austin is inexorably approaching the point where Texas residents will be admitted exclusively on the basis of high school class rank," said Faulkner.
Alice Reynard, an admissions official for Texas A&M University, testified that the top 10 percent law is an aid to increase diversity. During recruiting, a prospective student is often focused on the question of admission, as opposed to other questions about a university, such as financial aid, reputation or facilities. The top 10 percent rule, says Reynard, moves the focus of recruiting from admission to these deeper issues. This opens the door for a lot of students, especially students from a family where they will be the first college student. Reynard added that guaranteed admission is not a problem at Texas A&M, as only about 50 percent of incoming freshman are admitted under the top 10 percent rule, but she did say that it could develop into a problem in the future.
During public testimony, several individuals came forward to defend the top 10 percent admission standard. The theme of most testimony was the benefit guaranteed admission gives to minorities and to students from smaller schools. Tim Ratcliff, the principle at Jasper High School in Jasper, said that many students from small schools like Jasper High, feel that they cannot compete with applicants from larger, better funded schools. He believes that the top 10 percent rule gives these students a fair chance to attend a good state university. Ratcliff added that if the top 10 percent rule is repealed, many students from smaller high schools may not have the same access to post-secondary education as students from better funded, more populous districts.
The subcommittee considered three bills related to the top 10 percent issue. Senate Bill 320, by San Antonio Senator Jeff Wentworth, would eliminate the top 10 percent rule and leave admission decisions up to individual admissions officials at state colleges. SB 333, by Dallas Senator Royce West, would only allow automatic admission for top-ten-percent students if they take the minimum recommended high school curriculum. Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos proposed SB 1546, which would cap the percentage of an incoming class admitted under the top 10 percent law at 65 percent.
Also today, the Senate approved a measure that would increase the salaries of state judges. Senate Bill 368, by Lubbock Senator Robert Duncan, would raise the annual salary of a Texas district judge from $101,000 to $125,000, and would raise the compensation of Appeals Court and High Court judges by $28,000 and $37,000, respectively. This is necessary, according to Duncan, to keep experienced judges from leaving the bench to seek better compensation in the private sector. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst said this bill will help to decrease this judicial departure. "We've seen, time after time, good judges just not be able to keep up with the cost of living," said Dewhurst. "They've had to leave the bench and leave decades of fine judicial experience." SB 368 now goes to the House for final approval.
The Senate will reconvene, Thursday, March 31, at 8 a.m. to consider the Local and Uncontested Calendar, and will convene for regular session at 10 a.m.