By Carl Irving
Less than two years after arriving as a self-described "fearful freshman" on the sprawling University of Texas campus, with its 49,000-plus students, sophomore Karla Vargas has achieved a 3.5 grade point average, and she hopes to qualify for law school.
One of the first of a slowly growing number of Hispanic "ten percenters" from working class families, recruited after affirmative action was banned, Vargas is eager to make the most of her opportunity.
"With four siblings, I've got pressures to succeed," she said.
Vargas, 20, graduated from a Dallas high school attended mostly by Hispanic and African American students from low-income families. She is the daughter of immigrant parents and the first in her family to go to college.
Vargas and students with similar backgrounds came here from high schools that rarely, if ever, had sent their graduates to Austin, flagship campus of the University of Texas system, until admissions policies were changed and recruiters began tracking them down and offering many, including Vargas, special scholarships.
Like other students of similar backgrounds interviewed here, Vargas was glad that her admission to one of the state's two most selective public campuses (Texas A&M-College Station is the other) came after a 1996 Federal appellate court decision banned race-based affirmative action policies. The federal case dealt with the University of Texas law school but the state attorney general subsequently applied it to all public campuses.
"Before that, a lot of people got a bad rap, claiming that minorities were favored," she said.
In 1997 the Texas legislature, with bipartisan support, passed a bill providing that the top ten percent of graduating seniors in each of the state's 1,644 public high schools (measured by grades, without regard to test scores) were automatically eligible for admission to a public college or university. The bill was signed into law by then-Governor George W. Bush.
In 2000, there were 21,000 "ten percenters." Nearly 12,000 of them enrolled at Texas public campuses: Sixty-four percent of these 12,000 were white, 18 percent Hispanic, ten percent Asian, six percent African American. Fifty-six percent of these students chose either UT-Austin or Texas A&M-College Station.
Almost half of the 7,337 places in last fall's freshman class at UT-Austin were filled by ten percenters, while the rest of the class was selected on the basis of staff analyses of grades, SAT scores, two written essays and activities in and out of the high school classroom.
The campus turned away 11,000 eligible applicants who were not ten percenters, including some from families that had attended UT-Austin for generations. So far, campus officials report, there has been a lot of grumbling but no law suits.
Vargas and her high school classmate, Melissa Rojas, say they could not have enrolled without the help of UT-Austin's new "Longhorn Scholarships" that pay tuition and fees for outstanding students from low-income families. Most of these students are graduates of 70 predominantly Hispanic or African American high schools that have been targeted by campus recruiters. Up to 350 students a year receive the scholarships, which are supported by a combination of campus and alumni funds.
"My family definitely doesn't have enough money to help," Vargas said. "It was set in stone that I get here on a Hispanic scholarship."
In its first year the ten percent law did little to increase minority enrollment at UT-Austin, leading Director of Admissions Bruce Walker and his colleagues to conclude: "To change the future, we had to acknowledge [there were] lots of social nets where UT was not visible," Walker said.
The admissions staff analyzed Texas public high schools and quickly identified 39 where parents had a mean annual income of $35,000 or less. These schools were sending few, if any, graduates to UT-Austin. Later, the list was expanded to 70, almost all with predominantly Hispanic or African American enrollments.
Recruiters, ranging from university President Larry R. Faulkner to members of Walker's admissions staff, began to visit these schools, talking up the advantages of a UT-Austin education and inviting students to tour the campus.
Walker believes these visits have made a big impact. "When President Faulkner tells assembled students in this once-ignored school, 'You in this room can compete,' it changes the dynamic," he said. The Longhorn Scholarships triggered other sources of financial help. Students discovered they qualified for other scholarships.
"The benefits are showing up here," Walker said. "Siblings are coming in now. That's what you want to happen. If you can get a whole family of siblings, you've changed not only their lives and futures but what the community thinks about. That's a powerful social statement."
After the federal court decision in what is known as the Hopwood case, Hispanic and African American undergraduate enrollment dropped sharply at UT-Austin. Now, thanks to the new scholarships and recruiting efforts, the percentages are almost back to the level of 1996, the last year of affirmative action admissions. (See chart.)
Although the numbers are still low, some believe the campus has become a model for boosting efforts to catch up with the state's rapidly changing ethnic and racial mix, expected to reduce whites to a minority within three years.
"It sends a message-to remain open to anyone who did well in high school," said Texas Higher Education Commissioner Don W. Brown.
So far, these students have come close to matching other UT-Austin freshmen in both grades and persistence, despite lower SAT scores, campus officials report. "Longhorn Scholars"-86 percent Hispanic and African American-have compiled a mean grade point average of 2.73, compared with 2.93 for all freshmen. Their dropout rate after two years was 11.5 percent, compared with 9.2 percent for other freshmen.
"They're doing well," said mathematics professor Uri Treisman, who had 30 Longhorn scholarship winners in his introductory calculus class of 108 last semester. "They require more careful advising and faculty sensitivity. They need encouragement but these kids don't freak out. They are accustomed to doing what they are asked to do."
The total group of ten percenters has done better than other freshmen. A 2000 survey found their mean grade-point average was 3.26, compared to 2.86 for others. After three years, their retention rate was 85 percent, while it was 78 percent for other first-year students.
"In other words, strong academic performance in high school is a demonstrably better predictor of success in college than high standardized-test scores," UT-Austin President Larry R. Faulkner wrote in a letter to USA Today.
The ten percent admissions policy, the Longhorn Scholarships and a new state student financial aid program called Texas Grants have led to a gradual increase in the proportion of underrepresented students at UT-Austin. But this is not true at Texas A&M-College Station, the state's other flagship school, where only nine percent of undergraduates are Hispanic, and only 2.5 percent are African American.
Statewide, Hispanics are 24 percent of undergraduate enrollment at public institutions, and African Americans are 10.6 percent. That compares with an overall state population that is 32 percent Hispanic and 12 percent African American.
Many Texas business and education leaders believe those numbers must be increased substantially, and there must be other reforms in both the K-12 and postsecondary systems, if the state is to maintain a vigorous economy.
"There's both cause for hope and caution" in the modest increases in minority enrollment at UT-Austin, said Steve Murdock, Texas state demographer and chairman of the Department of Rural Sociology at Texas A&M. Other hopeful developments cited by Murdock include generally higher test scores in elementary and secondary schools across the state and the new Texas Grants program.
Texas Grants, begun in 1999 with strong bipartisan legislative support, now provide $149 million in financial aid for 44,038 needy students throughout the state, with another $162 million earmarked for the coming academic year. Still, this is a drop in the bucket compared with student financial aid programs in California, Illinois, New York and some other states.
On the "cautious side," Murdock pointed out that only 27 percent of Texas 18-to-24-year-olds are enrolled in college, below the national average of 33 percent; the percentage of Texas adults who hold high school diplomas dropped from 39th to 45th nationally between 1990 and 2000; and the state fell from 23rd to 27th place in total number of college graduates during that same decade.
Murdock links these low numbers with the state's large population of poor and uneducated immigrants, but he says states with similar problems do better than Texas. For example, to match California's college-going rate, the state would have to add 200,000 students immediately.
Murdock has told legislators and business leaders that the state will pay a heavy price for not producing more college graduates: The poverty rate will increase three percent, and state average household income will decline $3,000 in constant dollars by 2030.
A major challenge is to increase Hispanic enrollment in higher education. Their segment of the state's population is projected to overtake whites in three years and they are expected to become the state's overall majority in 2026.
Yet Hispanics account for only 24 percent of undergraduate enrollments, even though they make up 38 percent of Texans of traditional college-going age. Many of the Hispanic students are concentrated on a few campuses near the Mexican border. In 2000, 31 percent of Texas public high school graduates were Hispanic; 52 percent were white, but among those who finished in the top ten percent academically, 64 percent were white, only 18 percent were Hispanic.
State elected officials have responded to warnings from Murdock and others. College prep courses will be a "minimum requirement" for admission to a public campus in Texas by 2008. Students will be able to opt out only with consent of a parent or guardian and a school counselor or administrator. (About half of the state's high school students, and almost all of the "ten percenters," already take these courses.)
After months of regional meetings with business leaders and with school and college officials, the statewide boards for both K-12 schools and higher education agreed on a set of goals to be achieved by 2015.
Two of the goals are quite specific:
Two other goals are somewhat vague:
- Add 500,000 college and university students to the state's current enrollment of just under one million.
- Double the amount of federal science and engineering research spending in Texas.
- Increase by half the number of degrees, certificates and other "identifiable student successes from high-quality programs." (However, no definition of "high quality" is given.)
- Increase substantially the number of nationally recognized college level studies. (But, again, no guidance is offered as to what constitutes a "nationally recognized" program.)
The plan also sets a target of increasing the number of nationally ranked top-ten research institutions and health science centers in Texas from none to one by 2005 and to two by 2010, and to increase the number of top-ten public research universities from none to one by 2010 and to three by 2020. Again, "nationally ranked" is a term that is subject to many interpretations.
This is a massive undertaking in Texas, with its 11 boards of regents for 42 degree-granting campuses and eight medical centers, plus local boards of trustees for 71 community colleges. And this does not include private institutions, which can go their own way.
However, the plan has strong legislative support from both parties. In addition to establishing the Texas Grants and mandating that most high school students must take college prep courses, the legislature has agreed to an advertising and marketing campaign to boost enrollments among underrepresented students. Five million dollars was appropriated to start the campaign.
State Senator Teel Bivins, a conservative Republican from Amarillo and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, recently sponsored a bill to help high schools that are in the bottom ten percent academically. The bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry, also a conservative Republican.
Beginning this fall, schools with the lowest percentage of college-going students are to be linked with nearby college campuses to "establish clear, achievable goals" toward improvement. So far, the state has identified 91 high schools, with 5,000 students. Efforts are underway to develop partnerships with neighboring institutions across state lines and with private schools, in areas of the state where there are no public campuses.
With state officials pushing, and with the modest gains at UT-Austin, there is considerable pressure on the 44,000-student Texas A&M campus at College Station to increase its minority enrollment, but so far without much success.
Almost 82 percent of the undergraduates at College Station are white; nine percent are Hispanic; 3.2 percent are Asian; and 2.5 percent are African American, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The UT-Austin campus is more diverse: 62.7 percent white; 15.9 percent Asian; 13.6 percent Hispanic; and 3.6 percent African American.
"The statistics are not encouraging," said Steve Murdock, the state demographer and one of several nationally prominent members of the A&M faculty.
"It (A&M) is clearly an institution that will have to take very strong action if it wants to become at all representative of the population. [It is] an institution that has made no progress in the last eight years-it's still predominantly white."
College Station once emphasized agriculture and mechanics, hence the "A&M," but long ago became a comprehensive campus, with studies in almost every area of higher education.
Like UT-Austin, the campus has drawn generations of Texans and, perhaps even more than Austin, has a solid niche in Texas lore that is related to the "Corps," a military training program that once dominated an all-male campus. A&M now has more women students than men, and the Corps-its members still wear shiny boots and spurs-has shrunk to about 1,500.
"Both Austin and A&M suffer from being considered white institutions," a state official said, "but Austin has been more successful in changing that image."
Joseph A. Estrada, A&M's assistant provost for enrollment, thinks the campus' remote location is partly to blame for the low numbers of Hispanic and African American students.
"Every sixth grader in Texas will visit the state capitol," only a few blocks from the UT-Austin campus, he said. A visit to A&M requires a long, lonely drive from almost every direction, along sometimes poorly marked roads, past endless flat fields and tiny villages. The only time visitors arrive en masse is for home football games, when the 82,000 seats in the biggest stadium in Texas usually sell out.
The campus has started to bus in an array of high school students for visits. "We are building bridges," Estrada said. "We know it won't be long before a number of the top ten percent will be of Hispanic origin."
Like newly arrived minority students at UT-Austin, those at A&M talked about big challenges, but they also stressed the loneliness and unease they feel as nearly invisible minorities.
"I didn't feel comfortable at first," said Jorge Castillo, a sophomore planning to major in business management. "My first instinct was to find people who look and act like me. I found I could make friends with others but it took a little while."
Sophomore Roberto Farias spoke of "culture shock-all those rich white guys in the dorm, and their etiquette. A&M has this big stereotype reputation of being awkward for minorities-a lot of people are scared of coming here."
Freshman Akilah Lee, who came to A&M from a predominantly African American high school in Houston, said, "At first I felt self-conscious, being the only black in the class. Were they all looking at me? Do these people accept me?"
At UT-Austin, special efforts are made to deal with these problems. Lucia Albino Gilbert, vice provost and professor of educational psychology, said the goal is to "connect students to the riches of the university, to stay and get a good degree." She described the challenge as seeking answers for a common question: "How do we improve undergraduate education at one of the best universities in the world, where many students come and don't engage?"
Most first-year students are enrolled in a non-credit seminar, one hour a week, with a student adviser who has been trained to answer their questions and make them feel welcome on the Austin campus. Longhorn Scholars-from predominantly minority high schools and low-income families-attend special classes taught by a group of instructors that includes members of the campus Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
There are also freshman seminars, taught by regular faculty members, that stress writing. And there are "forum" seminars that introduce freshmen and sophomores to a variety of subjects, from art and health care to Mexican American history and culture.
"All of this has to do with an increasingly diverse student body, with a large percentage the first generation to go to college," Gilbert said. "We're trying to make the size of the university into an opportunity for students."
Some UT-Austin faculty members sound less hopeful, or at least more uncertain about the new admissions policy.
"I understand why the legislature did it, [but] it's always bad to take away from the faculty decisions about who should make up the student body," said Larry Carver, a professor of English and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, which enrolls a third of the undergraduates in its courses.
During a recent interview, Carver, who was acting admissions dean when affirmative action was banned by the federal district court, debated with himself over the consequences of the new admissions policy.
"From the faculty standpoint, it's not perfect," he said. "The faculty does not have much impact on the selection process...Some (students) with low SATs are not equipped for courses. [But] so far we haven't seen problems. Students are self-selecting. They don't come here if they are unprepared. We are learning to recruit better. We're more open, more diverse, although we could do without the ten percent plan...It's a problem, really, below a 1,080 SAT score.
"Yet the top ten is a good indicator of success," Carver added. "It probably won't work in engineering or liberal arts. We're getting fewer now (in liberal arts) and more are going into communications, business. It's not a bad idea. This campus would become less relevant if it only took from 20 high schools."