Time to work on upping capacity and preparation
By STEPHEN BROWN II / Houston Chronicle
Sept. 19, 2007
As we begin another school year, now is the time to remember what saved Texas' top 10 percent rule was the awakening of members in the state House who could not bring themselves to vote against a rule that has achieved its initial purpose in most districts. It's equally important for the general public to understand its benefits, as well. In reality, the top 10 percent rule is not where the system is broke. In fact, it's been one of the true successes in achieving a merit-based system that gives all Texas students access to our state's flagship universities.
This past session, in large part based on the urgings of one university — the University of Texas at Austin — the Texas Legislature was well on its way to drastically limiting the impact of the top 10 percent rule by capping the number of students enrolling under it to 50 percent. UT officials failed to appreciate the overwhelming benefit of enrolling a diverse, competitive field of incoming freshmen. In one of the session's more dramatic moments, legislators representing mostly rural and inner city schools defeated attempted modifications to the top 10 percent rule.
What has been the impact of Top Ten? African-American enrollment has almost doubled at the University of Texas, from 266 in 1996 to 400 in 2006. Similarly, Hispanic enrollment at that university grew from 932 to 1,300.
A substantial amount of growth can be attributed to this rule change, as 75 percent of incoming African Americans and 80 percent of incoming Hispanics were top 10 percent students.
These students have demonstrated the ability to not only meet the expectations of academic excellence but in most cases to exceed them.
According to UT Austin's own data, top 10 percent students outperform non-top 10 students in GPA, retention and graduation rates. Despite some of these students not coming out of premier high schools, they are nevertheless capable of making the necessary adjustments at the college level. That is, exceptional students will perform exceptionally in almost any environment that they are placed.
All students in poor performing schools and school districts deserve a better pipeline of opportunity throughout their public school careers.
Instead of punishing the top 10 percenters from underperforming high schools by limiting their access to UT, why not focus on rebuilding these schools with the resources, tools and teachers needed to improve its performance? Our state can't afford the disparity gap that exists within our public school system. That's an issue of college preparedness that has shown to be distinctly different from the ability of top 10 percenters to perform (or even outperform) their contemporaries in our state's elite universities.
While UT clamors about diminishing capacity and an inability to attract talented nontop 10 percent students, the question remains why UT Austin continues to fill the nontop 10 percent spaces with the traditional suburban students that meant over 50 percent of UT's student body came from 65 schools prior to the enactment of the top 10 percent plan. Capping the top 10 percent plan would result in fewer talented students from rural, inner-city and border high schools and more students from a select few suburban high schools. Further, the capacity issue that exists at UT-Austin is one that can be addressed without limiting top 10 percenters. Members of the House Education Committee questioned if UT-Austin is experiencing a capacity problem why does it only have a 47 percent classroom utilization rate?
Maximizing existing space to meet the needs of all who are qualified and eligible to attend should be UT's first priority. The increased revenue that the school would receive by enrolling the students to fill those empty rooms would more than offset any additional faculty costs. If UT Austin still remains overbooked after addressing classroom utilization, incentives could be offered to students willing to volunteer to attend other state universities.
The answer lies with creative solutions to open the doors of access to higher education and not closing them on students who have proved themselves worthy at every opportunity given.
Brown is the managing director of Capitol Assets, a Houston-based public affairs firm and volunteer advocate for the Houston Area Urban League.