Policymakers, education leaders discuss fairness of state's top 10 percent rule

A nearly 20-year-old policy of automatically admitting students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes into any Texas public university could be scaled down or removed, the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee said March 31.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said during a panel discussion March 31 at the Austin Community College Highland campus that the state Legislature should look at whether the top 10 percent rule should be amended or done away with.

“I think some people would like to see it go away completely,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing to me—to see it go away completely. Being a realist … I do think you could ratchet it back because I do think the universities, especially the University of Texas, need something more than 25 percent discretion in terms of who they admit.”

The top 10 percent rule does not apply after 50 percent of the university’s incoming freshmen have been admitted through the policy.

Zerwas and other key players in education were among the speakers on the panel, including Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz, former University of Texas at Austin President Larry Faulkner and state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. The event was hosted by The Texas Tribune.

For his part, Cruz, who was named superintendent in January 2015, said the law should be reviewed.

“I think it’s time to look at it and see what it’s done,” he said.

Panelists also touched on whether the percentage should be changed.

“I’m not sure 10 percent is right to me,” Zerwas said. “That is just a number we pulled out of the air. … It works in some settings, and it doesn’t work quite as well in other settings.”

Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith moderated the discussion and pointed out stark contrasts between the percentage of students from low-income high schools being admitted to state universities through the top 10 percent rule and the percentage admitted from more affluent high schools.

For example, 3 percent of students in Lyndon B. Johnson High School’s 2015 graduating class enrolled at UT-Austin in the fall, according to a news application on the Tribune's website. About 84 percent of the school’s students were economically disadvantaged in the 2014-15 school year, according to the Texas Academic Performance Reports. Comparatively, Westlake High School, which has an economically disadvantaged rate of 3 percent, sent 12 percent of its graduating seniors to UT-Austin.

“Based on these numbers, I wonder whether this law is working at all,” Smith said. “Is this actually having the effect it was intended to have?”