LTW-2017-05-1-1Texas’ top 10 percent automatic college admission rule has worked for and against Austin-area families.

The law—approved 20 years ago this May to increase diversity in Texas’ public universities—has produced mixed outcomes across the state and in Eanes ISD, said Heidi Sauer, Westlake High School lead counselor.

"Globally, [the rule] benefits those schools with small districts that can't offer the resources we do to their students," she said. "[The rule] is a good thing because it gives opportunities to kids who wouldn't otherwise have that [opportunity]."

Sauer said the competition to be in the top 10 percent of the class and the rigor of the classes at the school that help advance students' grade point averages cause them to fight for a spot within the highest academic group.

“The law does not guarantee admission to their individual college,” she said. "In that regard, we have some disappointments [within our student body]. If our graduating class is 600 students, then only 60 qualify for the top 10 percent of the class. It seems everyone works frantically to get into the top 10 percent. We feel like it impacts our culture [at Westlake High School]. There's this pressure to reach that top 10 percent."

LTW-2017-05-56-1The critics

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

"When you only look at grades, that's a limitation," said Susan Envendyk, Lake Travis High School lead counselor. "There's more to each student. They have community service work, athletics, activities. [This admission method] limits your view of a student and what [he or she] has accomplished."

The University of Texas' “holistic” admissions process looks at everything from extracurricular activities to community involvement and SAT scores, UT President Greg Fenves said at an April Senate Higher Education Committee meeting.

In 2008, UT was filling 81 percent of its 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 2016 freshman class is made up of top 7 percenters who 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,” Fenves said.

Both Eanes and Lake Travis ISDs rank only the top 10 percent of classes.

Sauer said because of her school's competitive nature, a student with a solid grade point average, such as a 95 on a 100-point scale, may be in the top half of the class but not its top quarter.

She said her staff does not advocate her students report their class rank on college applications.

"Once you are past the top 10 percent, we think [college admission] representatives are looking at other qualities, experiences the students bring with them," Sauer said. "Beyond that, as they're looking to enrich freshman classes, they are looking at all of the [students'] other attributes to enrich that freshman class."

LTW-2017-05-56-2A snapshot of UT’s 2016 class

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, about 22,185 students who ranked between 11 and 25 percent 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 accepted, 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 a 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. “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.”

Envendyk said the bill has had a different effect on Lake Travis High School students.

"[The top 10 percent rule] is causing our students to disperse around the country more," she said. "Our  students [admitted] out of state has increased significantly in the last three to four years. I attribute that to the top public universities in-state limiting the students they admit."

Envendyk said the district performs a survey of its senior class at the end of the school year annually, asking students what colleges or universities they plan to attend. In 2015, LTISD students reported they were planning to attend 67 different out-of-state schools, she said. In 2016, that number grew to 97, she said.

LTW-2017-05-56-3Increasing diversity

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 cannot be certain it is because of the automatic admissions law or because the state’s population is increasingly more diverse.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, acknowledges the 10 percent rule once served a purpose in improving higher education’s diversity but the rule is no longer achieving its original purpose.

Seliger proposed Senate Bill 2119, legislation 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.

This would have a tremendous impact at UT, which is currently only allowed to cap its top 10 percent portion of the class at 75 percent. If passed in its current form, Seliger’s bill would free up 45 percent of the incoming class for those admitted through the holistic admissions process.

“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 impact of the rule on university’s 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 is not right now,” he said.