By Patrick Mcgee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Friction over the law that guarantees admission to any public university in Texas to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes has lawmakers considering everything from instituting curriculum standards to repealing the measure.
Intended to boost black and Hispanic enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station, the law has become a source of contention as more students battle for admission to these popular, nationally recognized universities.
In the eight years since the law was passed, the institutions have made only modest gains in enrolling more minority students. At the same time, applications for admission to the two flagship universities has increased by about a third.
Eighty-two percent of Texans agree with the top 10 percent law, according to a Scripps Howard poll released last week, and university data show that top 10 percent students do well in their undergraduate work.
Minority leaders are fighting to save the admissions law, which they consider an important tool to getting more blacks and Hispanics into Texas' better universities.
But there are some vocal opponents. Parents of students in rigorous schools complain that their children who fall just shy of the top 10 percent are being pushed out by students in the top 10 percent at less demanding schools.
This tension has spilled into the Legislature, where lawmakers are divided over how to ensure equity in the admissions process.
One bill calls for letting Texas university systems decide which institutions' top 10 percent students may attend. Another would guarantee admission only to students in the top 5 percent.
Another bill would kill the top 10 percent law, and yet another seeks to continue the admission guarantee, but only for the top 10 percent of students who take the state's recommended or advanced high school curriculum.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, wrote the curriculum bill in an attempt to save the top 10 percent law. He believes perceptions of the law's unfairness are driving efforts to amend or abolish it.
"What is the issue?" he asked. "Is the issue about the top 10, or is it that some kids from wealthy school districts are not getting in and their parents are upset about that?"
One of those parents is Nancy Johnson. Her daughter, Laine, has a 97 average at Carroll High School in Southlake, but she's not in the top 10 percent. The 17-year-old is waiting to hear whether UT-Austin will accept her on other merits.
For the sake of her younger children, Johnson hopes the Legislature abolishes the top 10 percent law.
"I'm hoping this will change by the time they are ready to enter college just so that they won't be penalized just because we live in Southlake and this is an excellent school system," she said.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, agrees with Johnson and opposes West's bill to save the admissions law. West said 11 senators support his bill, but Wentworth said he has 13 backing his bill to kill the top 10 percent law outright.
"It's no longer needed," he said, pointing out that the 1996 circuit court ruling that banned affirmative action in Texas higher education was effectively overturned by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling. Texas universities can again favorably consider a person's race in admissions, and UT is doing so for its next freshman class.
Wentworth prefers A&M's colorblind admissions, and he echoed Johnson's criticism of the top 10 percent law, saying it's barring kids who attend more rigorous high schools.
He said he knew of a student with an 87 average who was in the top 10 percent at hisschool.
"You have other kids who have 99 and 100 averages, and they're not in the top 10 percent, and they're not able to go," he said. "That's intrinsically unfair, it seems to me."
Who gets in?
Marta Tienda, a Princeton University sociologist studying Texas' top 10 percent law, found that students just shy of the top 10 percent at rigorous schools are not being shut out.
A 2002 survey she did found that 75 percent of students in the 11th to 20th percentile of their classes at wealthy "feeder" schools were accepted at UT and A&M on other merits if they applied.
"We found that they were more successful in matriculating at their desired Texas college than was the average Texas high school senior who ranked in the second decile," Tienda wrote last year with research associate Sunny Niu in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "... Our survey reveals little evidence that masses of students, including those who graduated from feeder schools, are being crowded out of the most selective public institutions in Texas."
But the number of top 10 percent students automatically admitted has grown, especially at UT, where 66 percent of this year's freshman class was admitted under the law. UT officials say admitting so many students under just one criterion robs them of their ability to build a meaningful freshman class. They would rather review more applicants "holistically" and admit students whose other talents will add to the band, sports teams, debate club and other aspects of campus life.
A&M officials are less worried because their top 10 percent admissions have leveled off at a little less than 50 percent.
UT has seen a 37 percent increase in applications since 1998, when the top 10 percent law was implemented. A&M saw a 31 percent increase over the same period.
The top 10 percent students may take up big chunks of UT and A&M enrollment, but figures show they do well academically. Data from the universities show that top 10 percent students have consistently higher grade-point averages and retention rates than their classmates who were accepted on other merits.
Where's the diversity?
A 2000 study at UT found that the top 10 percent law was very successful in boosting diversity -- geographic diversity. Rural schools that previously had no representation at UT began sending students.
Top 10 percent students at rural Itasca High School -- all four of them -- said their teachers and guidance counselor constantly remind them of the law's promise.
Itasca is a small town about halfway between Fort Worth and Waco. It's one of many rural schools that turned up on the 2000 UT study.
But the top 10 percent law has helped achieve only small gains for Hispanics and has done even less for blacks.
In 1997, the year before the top 10 percent law went into effect, A&M's freshman class was 2.8 percent black and 9.7 percent Hispanic. This year's freshman class is 3 percent black and 12.2 percent Hispanic.
UT's 1997 freshman class was 2.5 percent black and 12.1 percent Hispanic. This year, its freshman class is 4.6 percent black and 17.2 percent Hispanic.
These figures are even more alarming when compared with Texas' growing minority population.
In 2003, blacks made up 12 percent of the 2.4 million Texans ages 18 to 24, and Hispanics made up 40 percent of that age group, according to the Texas State Data Center.
The modest gains in student body diversity came not just with the top 10 percent law but with multimillion-dollar outreach efforts by UT and A&M. University officials targeted predominantly minority high schools in inner cities and along the Mexican border, and they courted the top students there with scholarship offers.
Tiffany Johnson was one of those students. The 2002 graduate of Dunbar High School in Fort Worth said A&M was "very persistent," offering $7,000 a year in scholarships.
Johnson, now a junior majoring in mechanical engineering at A&M, was automatically admitted to the university because she was in the top 10 percent of her class.
She shares the view of the state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of United Latin American Citizens, who think the law should be preserved.
"I feel like it would do more good than harm to just leave it as is," Johnson said. "It takes a lot of work to get into the top 10. You're not in the top 10 percent by doing nothing."