College 10% Rule Under Fire Yet Again - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

03/27/07 - Houston, Texas

College 10% Rule Under Fire Yet Again

For a decade, a controversial law requiring universities to automatically admit the top 10 percent of high school graduates has withstood repeated attacks from critics.

And the law's resiliency is being tested again this year.

Lawmakers are girding for battle over proposals to scale back the law, originally intended to promote racial and ethnic diversity after a court decision temporarily barred racial preferences for college admissions.

The top 10 percent rule, passed in 1997, requires state universities to accept any Texas applicant who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her class.

Proponents say the law offers a fair method, not based on race, for admitting a diverse freshman class of high-achieving students.

Opponents argue that the law unfairly hurts excellent students from the top 20 percent of graduating classes at competitive high schools.

Attempts to limit the law could run into trouble in the Senate, where Sen. Royce West, a black Democrat from Dallas, is searching for 11 votes to block a possible floor debate.

Along with Democratic supporters, he's enlisting Republicans from rural Texas whose constituents are benefiting from the law's unintentional side effect: promoting geographical diversity.

Among his potential allies for keeping the 10 percent rule intact, West is courting Republican Sens. Bob Deuell of Greenville, Kevin Eltife of Tyler and the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Steve Ogden of Bryan, the chamber's lead budget writer.

"It's a good rule for a lot of reasons," said Ogden. "It's good because it is a more objective standard than what's been used in the past. It's less subject to political manipulation."

Eltife said the 10 percent rule has greatly helped the rural schools he represents.

"I like 10 percent, actually," he said. "I think it does give (rural students) a better shot. I like the fact that we're giving them something to strive for."

UT pushes for cap

The University of Texas at Austin, where top 10 percent admissions continue to soar with each academic year, is the only institution actively pushing for capping how many students can gain admittance under the law.

The school has long argued that admitting so many students under a single criteria forces it to turn away certain gifted students it would like to admit.

"We've talked pretty regularly about trying to put some kind of cap on it. Last year, our incoming freshman class was 71 percent out of the top 10 percent," said UT spokesman Don Hale.

That compares to only 40 percent of the flagship university's enrollment when the law first took effect. By contrast, Texas A&M University admitted 47 percent of its Texas freshman class under the 10 percent rule.

While one bill would completely eliminate the top 10 percent law, the leading proposal would cap students enrolled under it to half of an incoming freshman class.

House Bill 1186 sponsored by House Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, would likely result in UT Austin accepting the top 7 percent of applicants, said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, author of the Senate's companion legislation.

"The argument about top 10 percent is no longer an argument for bringing minorities into the system," Shapiro said, noting the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 ruled affirmative action can be used for college admissions.

Each spring, she said, she gets calls from constituents whose children didn't make the top 10 percent at highly competitive Plano Senior High School. Josh Wakeman, 22, a senior studying accounting at the University of Oklahoma, is among them.

"Paying out-of-state tuition is highly undesirable," said Wakeman, who graduated from high school with a 92 average and got an academic scholarship to OU. "There's no provision to allow students who excel in high school to still excel in college, even though they're not in the top 10 percent."

Senate higher education subcommittee Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she's waiting to act after the House passes its leading proposal and sends it to her committee.

Zaffirini, a UT graduate, said she favors changing the law provided Texas moves forward to assure racial and ethnic diversity in college admissions, such as more recruiting from under-represented high schools.

"I really don't like a single criteria, whether it's grades or SAT scores or anything else," she said. "A brilliant musician, a brilliant actor, a brilliant writer might not be in the top 10 percent even though we would keep that person out of the top institution."

No tampering needed

West said he's not convinced that the U.S. Supreme Court will continue to allow racial preferences for college admissions, now that its makeup is more conservative.

He said the top 10 percent law should not be tampered with because it works.

At both UT and Texas A&M, research shows that top 10 percent students have higher grade point averages, higher retention rates and higher graduation rates than those not in the top 10 percent, his office notes.

"Students in the top 10 percent are helping to further solidify the reputation of UT Austin as a top-notch university," West said. "They're the students from every walk of life in the state of Texas - urban, rural, black, white, Hispanics. Someone needs to tell me what's wrong with that."

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