‘Lone factor’ dictates college automatic admissions

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Veronica Lopez was fourth in her class at Akins High School. A music education major, she said she decided in mid-April to attend The University of Texas instead of Texas State University because of its music program and her desire to remain in Austin.

“I know I’m going to be challenged when I go to UT,” she said. As one of the top-ranked students in her class, Lopez qualified for automatic admission into UT under the state’s top 10 percent rule. The law—enacted 20 years ago this May—was put into place to increase diversity in Texas’ public universities.

As a first-generation Hispanic student, Lopez said it was important to her to prove that she could be at the top of her class.

In addition to taking Advanced Placement classes, Lopez said she was part of the choral program, participated in church activities and had an internship, even though automatic admission is based solely on class rank, not on
extracurriculars.

“I wanted to be well-rounded,” she said.

The critics

Some critics argue the top 10 percent rule hurts students from competitive, academically rigorous schools by limiting the admissions criteria to a single factor.

UT’s “holistic” admissions process, which students outside of the top 10 percent ranking undergo for acceptance into the university, looks at everything from extracurricular activities to community involvement and SAT scores.

In 2008, UT was filling 81 percent of its freshman class with top 10 percenters, a realization that spurred legislators to take action, altering the university’s admission policy from automatically accepting those in the top 10 percent to just those in the top 7 percent.

Today, 75 percent of UT’s freshman class is made up of top 7 percenters that are admitted based on class rank.

“This lone factor misses the richness and the educational and life experience that often get in the way of one’s class rank,” UT President Gregory Fenves said at an April Senate Higher Education Committee meeting.

At Austin ISD, class rank is determined by calculating a student’s GPA on courses he or she completed for credit. The school district offers weighted grades in advanced-level courses as well as in upper-level language, advanced fine arts and certain courses recognized for college credit at community college.

AISD rejected a Community Impact Newspaper open records request for data during the reporting of this story. The data would have shown the average GPA needed to rank within the top 7 and 10 percent at the district’s high schools.

Some schools in the district, such as the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, choose to forgo the traditional class ranking system. Only the top 10 percent of students are assigned a rank, and the bottom 90 percent are only able to access their rank by request.

Jane MacLean, mother of class of 2015 Ann Richards graduate Josie MacLean, said even though her daughter’s GPA was better than a 4.0, at the competitive Ann Richards, her daughter ranked outside of the top 10 percent. Unlike most AISD schools, students who attend Ann Richards are accepted through a rigorous admissions process.

“She was definitely the kind of student who was very worried about getting into the top 10 percent,” Jane MacLean said. “While she was a very dedicated student, she was not acing every test and at the very, very top.”

According to Jane, Ann Richards chooses to remain unranked so that colleges are more likely to admit a student based on extracurricular activities as well as GPA. 

Josie was eventually accepted into UT through the holistic admissions process. As a parent, Jane said it concerns her that the top 10 percent rule has prioritized the value of diversity over post-secondary
readiness. 

“Of course I want my daughter to be exposed to diversity, but I want college to be about being ready and prepared,” Jane said.

Although the top 10 percent rule is imperfect, Josie said it should stay in place to keep college diversity on the rise.

“While I do think it can be unfair because a lot of the kids that come in from underserved schools are not as well-prepared, I also think that right now it’s the best way we have to [increase diversity],” she said.

A snapshot of UT’s 2016 class

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, about 22,185 students who ranked between 11 and 25 percentiles of their class in 2016 went to a state public university. Almost 37,000 students who made up the other 75 percent of their classes also went to Texas public universities.

At UT, 27,215 Texas students applied in 2016, and 18,744 were accepted. Of those, 12,733 were in the top 10 percent, and 1,499 fell between 11 and 25 percent.

Of those Texans who enrolled, 5,571 were in the top 10 percent, and 1,964 were outside the top 10 percent.

About 360 students admitted to UT outside the top 10 percent enrolled in an different Texas public university, according to the THECB.

And 3,278 students who were automatically admitted to UT chose to go to another public university.

“The landscape of higher education in the state of Texas is dramatically different now than [when]the first bill— the top 10 [percent]bill—was passed 20 years ago,” UT Provost Maurie McInnis said at the committee meeting. “Many, many more institutions in the state are really high-quality academic institutions. Perhaps the choices that some people are making are a reflection of that.”

Revising the law

Fenves said the top 10 percent rule forced UT to increase geographic diversity. The latest freshman class came from 240 Texas counties, he said.

Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes said public universities have become more diverse, but he is unsure if it is because of the automatic admissions law or because the state’s population is more diverse.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, acknowledges the 10 percent rule used to improve higher education’s diversity but is no longer doing so.

Seliger proposed Senate Bill 2119, a bill that initially eliminated the top 10 percent rule entirely but in later drafts permits universities to cap the number of automatic top 10 percent enrollees at
30 percent of the incoming class.

“In recent years, with significant growth in the college-going population, The University of Texas at Austin felt particular pressure to increase class sizes in order to have any flexibility,” he said. “At one time, it was an enormous percentage of an incoming class at 81 percent.”

In 2009, UT received 14,000 applications from non-top 10 percenters but could only admit 3,300 students through its holistic admission process, Fenves said. By 2016 the university had received 21,000 non-top 10 percent applications for the same number of available slots.

Although Seliger is ready to move on this issue now, other lawmakers are hesitant to act. Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, authored a bill that would investigate the current impact of the rule on universities’ admission and enrollment before taking more drastic steps.

Universities would be required to evaluate the rule annually and submit a report to the state for further action.

Even with further analysis, Seliger is not convinced the rule is necessary.

“It is not the role of government to set admission policies and procedures for universities absent some compelling reason, discrimination and things like that, which there isn’t right now,” he said.

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Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges was the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covered San Marcos City Council, San Marcos CISD and Hays County Commissioners Court. Marie previously reported for the Central Austin edition. Marie moved to Austin from Williamsburg, Va. in 2016 and was born in France. She has since moved on from Community Impact in May 2018.
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