Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Top 10 Percent Rule Woes Highlight Need for Equality in Education

Carlos Guerra / San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted: 06/21/2005 12:00 AM CDT

Bills to kill or severely limit Texas' top 10 percent rule didn't make it through the 79th Legislature. But no one believes they won't be resuscitated in 2007.

The top 10 percent rule became law after a federal court struck down a University of Texas affirmative-action policy, ruling that race-based admissions discriminated against Anglos. When the ruling was broadened to all public universities and extended to financial aid decisions, minority enrollment at UT-Austin and Texas A&M dropped sharply.

To reverse the decline, lawmakers voted to automatically admit any high school grad in the top 10th of his or her class to any state school, figuring that it would increase diversity since Texas high schools are still very segregated.

It worked. The merit-based policy is why, today, Texas A&M's and UT's student bodies are the most racially, economically and geographically diverse in their history.

And top-10-percenters also defied predictions that the high-ranking grads of low-performing schools would fall behind the lower-ranked students from supercompetitive high schools. Not only have top-10-percenters kept up, in many cases they have earned higher grade-point averages than other students with much higher SAT scores.

But while the policy applied to all state schools, most students apply to UT-Austin, where top-10-percenters have grown to about 70 percent of freshmen, and where the percentage of students admitted for other reasons has dropped.

"The top 10 percent plan has clearly achieved what it was supposed to," says Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes. "But whether it is the best system is another issue."

Because enrollment mix is an important component of a good university experience, these admissions already are causing concern at one university.

"It's only an issue at UT," he says, "It isn't one at Texas A&M yet, where they are still well under 50 percent of students, the tipping point for universities admitting students by one particular standard or criterion."

But the policy's controversy really focuses attention on other, more fundamental problems of Texas education, Paredes says.

"Most conversations about this miss the point," Paredes says. "The fundamental issues are that there are an awful lot of families in Texas, of whatever background or ethnicity, that feel that if their kids don't get into UT-Austin, and to a lesser extent Texas A&M, they are getting an inferior education.

"We have to do a better job of calling attention to the excellence that exists on other campuses, and improve undergraduate education, generally, in Texas so that people have more options.

"The other thing the top 10 percent plan underscores is that there is tremendous variability in the quality of our high schools," he adds. "If someone says, 'My kid graduated from (a very prestigious) high school in the top 12 percent, and he or she wasn't admitted because you took somebody from the 9th percentile of (a less recognized school),' what they are really saying is that apart from fairness, (one) is a better high school, and it probably is; so we need to make sure that every child in Texas, from the time he or she enters kindergarten, really has a shot at a first-rate education."

As for UT's problem of attracting too many top-10-percenters, tune in Thursday when the policy's inventor, a San Antonio native, details how the UT System could solve their dilemma without legislative intervention.
To contact Carlos Guerra,
call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

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