Texas Maintains “Top 10%” Automatic Admissions

University Testing

FairTest Examiner, July 2009

Despite pressure from suburban elected officials and some University of Texas (UT) at Austin administrators to overhaul its landmark “Top 10%” admissions law, the 2009 state legislative session voted to make only minor changes in the policy. Instead, they agreed to limit program enrollment to 75% of first-year students, a policy which will slightly impact the Austin campus but no others.

The 1997 “Top 10%” law grants all Texas high school students automatic admission to any state-run institution if they took a pre-college curriculum and graduated in the top tenth of their class. SAT or ACT scores play no role in the process. Because of residential segregation patterns, the policy significantly improved diversity in the Texas higher education system. This was particularly important for African-Americans and Latinos for the seven years during which a U.S. district court ban on affirmative action was in effect (http://www.fairtest.org/texas-top-10-law-helps-increase-minority-enrollment). The Hopwood prohibition on considering race in admissions was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Gruter decision dealing with applicants to the University of Michigan. 

Multiple studies by UT and outside researchers found that “Top Ten Percenters” earned higher undergraduate grades than their peers whose test results were considered. This held true even when compared with entering students whose SAT scores were up to 200 points higher (http://www.fairtest.org/texas-report-shows-test-optional-admission-works). UT Austin leaders who wanted to change the rules conceded that the policy improved both equity and academic quality at their campus.

The “problem,” according to the administrators and legislators from upper-income communities, was that the “Top 10%” plan had become “too successful.” More than 85% of students entering UT Austin this fall were admitted under “Top 10%” rules. That left very few seats for anyone else, including some talented students who did not graduate near the top of highly competitive classes, star athletes, legacies, and children of fundraising prospects. They initially proposed to limit the “Top 10%” program to as few as 50% of in-state enrollees.

An unusual coalition of black, brown and white representatives and senators from the state’s most urban and most rural low-income communities opposed major admissions policy changes. Schools in their districts posted the greatest gains in the number of students going to UT flagship schools because of the law. After months of debate, the two sides compromised on the 75% cap.

The revisions to the law effectively mean that only high school students who graduate in the top nine percent of their classes will gain automatic admission to UT Austin. There will be no changes at other campuses, including Texas A & M, the system’s other flagship institution. The “Top 10%” enrollment at A&M is not close to the 75% ceiling.

The real problem is that the UT system lacks adequate capacity for all the students qualified to enroll, particularly at its highest rated campus. Without additional funds for more professors and classrooms, access needs to be rationed by some system. For more than a decade, the “Top 10%” law has proven this can be accomplished in a manner that enhances both diversity and excellence.