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The Ten-Percent Solution
Texas' enrollment strategy remains contentious, as the state becomes increasingly multi-cultural

By Susan C. Thomson
Austin

Texas innovates. From the state that gave the world Dr. Pepper and the microchip also came the nation's first percentage plan for public university admissions, later adapted to their own purposes by California and Florida.

 
Texas State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos introduced the legislation making students in the top ten percent academically at each Texas public high school eligible for admission to UT-Austin and Texas A&M.
(Photo by Jana Birchum, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The original, Lone Star version of the plan requires the University of Texas here, and the state's 34 other four-year universities, to automatically admit all applicants ranking in the academic top ten percent of any of the state's high schools—public and private; small and large; urban, suburban and rural; white, black and Hispanic. The idea was conceived as a supposedly race-blind tool to ensure racial diversity on campus.

Almost a decade later, the ten-percent solution has transformed and ingrained itself into Texas' university admissions culture, and the state's universities have grown overall more racially diverse. But nobody is claiming that the law alone has made the difference—or that, in light of the state's long-term demographic trends, that difference will be enough.

Nor is there any disputing that this mechanistic, admission-by-number system, while opening the door for some students, has slammed it on others who, by conventional measures like grades and test scores, appear to be higher achievers. There's the rub, and the source of ongoing contention over the law, and its fairness, in an increasingly multi-cultural state.

 
High school principal Patrick Patterson likes the ten-percent plan because it gives more students a chance to attend the University of Texas flagship campus in Austin.
(Photo by Jana Birchum, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
The debate turns intensely political in the biannual meetings of the Texas Legislature. Previous sessions have seen unsuccessful attempts to limit the guarantee to a smaller percentage of top students, restrict it to those who have taken college-prep courses, eliminate the promise to students of admission to their first-choice school, cap the percentage the University of Texas at Austin would have to accept, and scrap the plan altogether. A repeat performance featuring at least some of those same proposals is expected at the legislature's next get-together, which starts in January.

Pressure for change comes from two sources: UT-Austin, which has been swamped by ten-percent applicants, and the state's affluent suburbs, where high schools are geared to college preparation. Now, for admission to state universities, 90 percent of those schools' students must get in line behind the favored ten percent from all of the state's other schools of whatever quality.

"In these communities, people are very much against the ten-percent rule," said Jeff Pilchiek, head counselor at Westlake High School, outside Austin's western limits, where 90 percent of students are white and 94 percent go to college. He speaks also from previous experience at academically oriented Highland Park High School in Dallas, and his point is seconded by Westlake principal Linda Rawlings, formerly at Clear Lake, a similar high school in the Houston area.

Clear across town, on the east side of Interstate 35, which slices through and divides the area somewhat economically, the ten-percent issue comes into sharper focus at Austin Independent School District's LBJ High School. Here is a two-in-one—a magnet school for top students from across the city, combined with a school for a neighborhood of small ranch houses that have seen better days. This arrangement of two high schools under one roof is unique in the state, and the combined student body of about 1,700 is roughly one-third white, one-third Hispanic and one-third African American, according to principal Patrick Patterson.

Students from both groups take some of their classes together and mingle in extracurricular activities and in the halls, where Patterson is a cheerful presence, greeting and smiling on all alike and wearing a purple polo shirt—purple being the school's uniting, signature color.

Only for class rankings are the two student bodies kept entirely apart-a system Patterson concedes works to the advantage of the neighborhood students, and to the disadvantage of sometimes better prepared magnet students, when they apply to Texas state universities. The magnet students "might not be able to go to the University of Texas, but they're going to top schools" like Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Yale and MIT, he said. At the same time, the neighborhood students are getting a shot at the University of Texas that they didn't have before, he said. "From my perspective [the ten-percent plan] works because it's giving kids an opportunity to go."

When Texans think college, it's often UT-Austin that flashes first to mind. As Admissions Director Bruce Walker put it, "There is an expectation among Texas residents that they have a right to be at the University of Texas." Of late, more and more would-be Longhorns every year have been positively stampeding the university to exercise a right the ten-percent plan gives them. Among all UT-Austin freshmen from the state this fall, three-quarters are these must-admits.

"That's a very high percentage of your student body getting in under one single criterion," frustrating the university's ability to choose its students, said Walker. So, the university has backed legislative proposals that would limit its automatic admissions to somewhere around half of the total. Will the university do so again? Walker skirts the issue, saying only that that's not his decision.

"No question, they're going to come back seeking a cap," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the state's NAACP. He's unsympathetic. "I think the University of Texas at Austin has overblown the impact of the top-ten-percent plan, and other folks out there have picked up the same dogma," he said. Though he is open to "reasonable" change, he said all proposals to date would have gutted a law that is "actually working for diversity" by leveling the playing field for top students from disadvantaged schools. "When you compete as best you can in your environment, why shouldn't the state's best universities let you in?"

 
Amit Bhatka, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, says the students who did not make the ten-percent cutoff included "a lot of people who are a lot more intelligent" than he.
(Photo by Jana Birchum, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Bledsoe and Ana Yanez-Correa, legislative director of the state's League of United Latin American Citizens, take credit for jointly stalling all efforts to amend the law in 2005, and say they are braced to do it again in 2007, barring assurance of some quid pro quo, not previously forthcoming. "We said, 'What is the deal here? What are we getting back?'" said Bledsoe. As for those left-out suburban high school students, he added, "Too bad. Join the club. We've been struggling for generations about being excluded. These kids can afford to go to other schools."

It's not that either of their organizations has given up on affirmative action. In fact, Bledsoe and Yanez-Correa say they want that too, along with the ten-percent plan. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund also endorses this kind of belts-and-suspenders approach to diversity, as does state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. Affirmative action is fine, he said, but ten-percent adds to it "a solid methodology for continued fairness."

The ten-percent plan was born as a fall-back strategy—after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1996 rejected the University of Texas Law School's use of race in admissions decisions. The ruling put a chill on affirmative action not just at the University of Texas but across the entire Fifth Circuit, consisting of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

 
Jeff Pilchiek, head counselor at 90-percent white Westlake High School, in the Austin suburbs, says, "In these communities, people are very much against the ten-percent rule."
(Photo by Jana Birchum, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Texas alone moved to blunt the blow. Barrientos—a Tejano, or Mexican American, who delights in recounting his personal story of growing up doing farm labor with his migrant family and eventually finding his way to the University of Texas-recalls an urgency to come up with some way to enroll minorities in a post-affirmative action world. Although he eventually wrote the Senate version of the ten-percent bill, he said it was the product of many people's thinking, especially David Montejano, a sociologist then at UT-Austin, now at the University of California at Berkeley.

The theory—and it was only that, because nothing like it had ever been tried—was that racial diversity would automatically result from admitting the best students from all of the state's high schools, with their different racial compositions.

The legislature passed the ten-percent plan, and then-Governor George W. Bush signed it into law with a flourish in 1997. ("He took credit for my plan," Barrientos, a Democrat, said with a mischievous twinkle.) The law went into effect with students entering college the next year, and it has survived-thrived even-since the Supreme Court's decision three years ago opening the way for colleges to consider race, among other factors, in evaluating applicants. Walker said UT-Austin is doing that again in deciding how to fill its ever-shrinking share of slots not automatically claimed by top-ten-percent students.

Random interviews on the campus suggest that students are well aware, sometimes painfully so, of the ten-percent law and their own either-or status under it. Overall, they give it a failing grade. Those who made the charmed circle were more self-effacing than boastful about it. Both Lindsay Greer, from Garland, and Amit Bhatka, from Llano, said they knew many capable students who missed the cutoff and were not accepted. Bhatka went so far as to say that the rejects included "a lot of people who are a lot more intelligent" than he.

Students who had not qualified for the automatic pass were especially sensitive to the slight, and were inclined to be defensive. One freshman admitted that she did not like the plan simply because she hadn't qualified under it. Another freshman, Jamie Tamez, from Gregory, said, "I think it's ridiculous because there are high schools that are difficult and high schools that are not so difficult." Hers was among the hard ones, she said. "I could have gone to another high school and graduated in the top ten percent."

In casual conversations, several students at Texas A&M University echoed that lament, insisting that they would have made the top ten percent if only they had not taken such tough courses or gone to such rigorous high schools.

Texans tend to measure the law in terms of its effect on UT-Austin or Texas A&M. These are the state's two flagship universities, its most selective in admissions, strongest in traditions, biggest in image, and highest in student demand. At nearly 50,000 students each, the two campuses account together for roughly 20 percent of all students at the state's public universities and half of all of the top-ten-percent students who have enrolled under the law over the years.

One hundred flat Texas miles east of Austin, in more rural College Station, A&M goes now by initials that originally stood for "agricultural" and "mechanical." Agriculture remains one of the university's strongest programs, and students and alumni take glowing pride in being "Aggies." A public high school guidance counselor in the Houston area, who asked not to be named because his school frowns on staff members talking to the press, described A&M as conservative in culture and UT-Austin as liberal. That makes A&M the tougher sell to minority students.

Although ten-percent students have made up a pretty steady half of all new A&M enrollees for several years, the university's student body has remained roughly three-quarters white and ten percent Hispanic. And although A&M, like UT-Austin, practiced affirmative action before 1996, A&M has not returned to it.

Instead, as a race-neutral alternative, A&M three years ago began seeking out and awarding scholarships to students that Alice Reinarz, assistant provost for enrollment, described as "first generation, low-income...from areas of the state that are low-income and not necessarily college-going cultures."

To do that, the university beefed up its staff of recruiters and divided the state up among them. A&M graduate Eric Watson, for instance, became a recruiter. He travels the Brazos Valley, in south Texas, regularly visiting his assigned 60 high schools, some of them with only a few students in their graduating classes. He describes his job as pitching college in general and, in particular, A&M and the ten-percent plan, which, in his experience, has been "a motivator" for "students who never thought they could attend."

 
Texas state demographer Steve Murdock believes the ten-percent plan has enabled more minorities, especially Hispanics, to attend the state's public universities.
(Photo by Jana Birchum, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Reinarz agrees. She called ten-percent "an educational incentive," and said A&M unreservedly supports it. She added that the outreach effort that the university has coupled with it has borne fruit in the last few years, especially in the form of more Hispanic recruits who, she believes, will soon begin to make a difference in the university's overall racial profile.

UT-Austin has also been casting a bigger net to attract a broader economic and geographic pool of students. In 1999 the university identified 70 of the state's rural and urban low-income-area high schools, previously underrepresented on campus, and began offering scholarships to their top-ten-percent graduates. The university measures its success in diversity partly by the number of Texas high schools its freshmen come from—798 in 2005, compared with 616 in 1996, out of a statewide total of about 1,500.

Walker said this outreach to a greater number of schools is the "single most important" of many things UT-Austin has been doing over the past decade to increase diversity. Whatever the cause, the campus is more diverse now than it was before—58 percent white (down seven points), 14 percent Hispanic (up two points), and 15 percent Asian (up three points) at latest count.

Despite the ten-percent law and their outreach efforts, black enrollment at both UT-Austin and A&M has stayed stuck at about three percent, while historically black Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern continue to attract about 30 percent of all black students enrolled in the state's public universities.

Like the rising tide that lifts all boats, rising enrollment in those 35 universities-a seven-year, 18 percent increase to half a million students in 2005, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board-has increased the statewide totals for students of every hue, blacks included. Overall, whites remain the majority—53 percent of the total in 2005, down from 61 percent when ten-percent became the rule. Blacks and Hispanics have gained, respectively, two points to 11 percent and three points to 22 percent of the sum, with Asians, international students and various others making up the rest.

Meanwhile, growing shares of Texas students are packing their bags for states beyond. A state-by-state, year-by-year analysis of students' interstate mobility by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, published in May, shows Texas to be a net exporter of college freshmen, with more of them leaving the state than entering it for all of its public and private colleges and universities, since the early '90s. Since 1996, the trend has accelerated slightly to the state's net loss of 6,189 freshmen in 2004. The numbers were greater only for Maryland, Illinois and New Jersey.

Thomas G. Mortenson, the institute's policy analyst, said students' migration patterns reflect in general the relative attractiveness and unattractiveness of their in-state and out-of-state college options.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, George W. Bush's former lieutenant governor and his successor in the state's top job, has a different take on Texas' student drain. He has complained that other states are siphoning away strong Texas students who are not making the ten-percent cut.

What role, if any, Perry might play in the upcoming ten-percent debate is a matter of speculation. He has not spoken publicly on the law for some time, and his office declined to make him or any of his staff members available to comment on it for this article.

In a press release last year state Senator Jeff Wentworth, a Republican from San Antonio, declared for the opposition. Saying the law was "undermining our efforts to admit the best and brightest high school students to Texas' flagship universities," he called for its repeal. Previously he had simply advocated limiting it to the top ten percent of academically prepared students—a view akin to that of many who predicted early on that the law would bring to the universities too many students ill-prepared for the work. UT-Austin and A&M have now refuted that argument with in-house research showing that, as a group, their ten-percent students get higher grades, and are more likely to graduate, than their other students.

So much for what John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business & Education Coalition, calls "the merit argument" against the ten-percent law. "These students have figured out how to be successful students even though they don't come from rich schools," he said. His organization, whose sponsors include Exxon, IBM and Southwestern Bell, has backed the ten-percent law before, and its board of directors voted last month to reaffirm its support.

In the past, advocates have also been able to count on a coalition of Democratic and Republican legislators from the rural and urban areas of the state, where the law has worked to students' advantage, to stand firm against all efforts to overturn or weaken it. Whether a similar support group will form out of whatever mix of senators and representatives results from November's election remains to be seen.

Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, chairman of the Senate's higher education subcommittee and coalition leader in the past, remains staunch. He said he wants to make certain the law survives and to find some solution—though he professes he has no idea what it might it might be—to UT-Austin's particular objections. He foresees "good chances" on both scores.

Barrientos, retiring rather than running for re-election this year, is not so sure about the law's chances. He said he fears the opposition might be strong enough to strike the law down next time around. But, he cautioned, "If they would be foolish enough to do this, the (political) repercussions would be hard and long because over half of the state is now minority, and I'm not talking about undocumented aliens."

Texas became "majority minority" two years ago, joining Hawaii, California and New Mexico in the distinction of being a state where whites—Anglos, in Texas parlance—are outnumbered by a stew of other racial groups.

 
The Texas Business and Education Coalition, including such influential companies as Exxon, IBM and Southwestern Bell, supports the ten-percent plan, says Executive Director John Stevens.
(Photo by Jana Birchum, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
That's just half of the demographic story in this population pressure cooker of a state, which is growing rapidly in sheer numbers of people as well. Growth is an old story for Texas, which state demographer Steve Murdock says has been adding population faster than the nation as a whole every decade since it joined the union. This held true for the 1990s, when the nation's population was growing at a rate of 13.2 percent and Texas' swelled by 22.8 percent. Murdock foresees no letup, predicting that there will be anywhere from two-thirds to two and a half times more Texans in 2040 than there were in 2000. He reckons further that, as Hispanics are now the majority in the under-18 group, somewhere between 2025 and 2035, they will become the overall majority.

Everything is plus-size in Texas, including the challenge posed by the double whammy of rapid population growth and racial change, which has implications for every facet of Texas life, including higher education. In 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board created a set of statewide goals called "Closing the Gaps by 2015." Among those goals was getting more students—especially more minority students—into Texas' colleges and universities, two- and four-year, public and private.

The board has now set its sights on a statewide total of 1.65 million students in all Texas higher education by 2015—481,000 more students than in 2005. According to the board's specific targets for racial diversity, 33,000 of those additional students should be black and almost 357,000 of them Hispanic. If Murdock projects correctly, the state's public universities alone need to brace for a population boom of anywhere from 29 to 82 percent by 2040, compared with 2000. By that later date, he estimates, as many as two-thirds of their students could be "non-Anglo."

"There's no doubt but that the ten-percent plan has increased access (to the public universities) for minority students and rural students," Murdock said. Access remains key, in his view, because minority students, especially Hispanics, have by no means caught up. "If you don't close these educational gaps, Texas will become poorer and less competitive than it is today," he said, adding that catching up is going to take "a tremendous increase in capacity" in the state's public higher education system.

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which is working with the Governor's Business Council to set legislative goals for the upcoming session, also foresees a capacity crunch, especially given his sense that the Coordinating Board has underestimated the "huge number of additional students" needed to make Texas competitive.

A decade ago, as a law professor at UT-Austin, Douglas Laycock helped argue in court the university's case for affirmative action. He still prefers that over the ten-percent law as a tool for getting minorities into college, but he sees access as only one of many problems. "The state has to figure out a way to increase achievement levels in its population, or it is doomed," said Laycock, who moved this fall from UT-Austin to the University of Michigan. "We have to get more Hispanics into college. We have to get more into the flagships. And we have to get more to graduate."


Susan C. Thomson is a former higher education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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