The law—approved 20 years ago this May to increase diversity in Texas’ public universities—has benefited Jettin Murphy, but so far it is working against her brother, Maverick, a junior at Round Rock ISD’s Westwood High School and a member of the golf team.
Their mother, Shelby, said her family moved to Northwest Austin for Westwood’s academic prestige.
But that prestige may have backfired, she said, because the competition to be in the top 10 percent of the class and the rigor of the classes leaves Maverick—who wants to study engineering and military science at Texas A&M University—fighting for a spot in the top 50 percent of his class, despite his 4.3 GPA.
“It’s been kind of demoralizing,” she said, adding her son stresses about missing classes because of the golf team—something that is not considered for admission with the top 10 percent rule.
Shelby’s daughter, on the other hand, attended Granbury High School outside Fort Worth and easily ranked within the top 10 percent. She is now a sophomore at The University of Texas.
Seven of Granbury’s 414 seniors enrolled in UT’s 2015 class, according to the Texas Education Agency’s Texas Academic Performance Report and UT’s Texas Feeder School Supplement.
In comparison, 86 out of 627 Westwood seniors enrolled at UT in 2015.
In hindsight, Shelby said she wished she had enrolled her son in a less challenging and less competitive school—and that the top 10 percent rule would disappear.
“[Maverick] would feel not quite as discouraged to where he has to clear this higher bar, these higher standards,” she said.
Complications of the rule
Situations such as Maverick’s exemplify some consequences of the 20-year-old college admissions rule, which some critics argue hurts students from competitive, rigorous schools by limiting the admissions criteria to a single factor.
UT’s “holistic” admissions process looks at areas from extracurricular activities to community involvement, UT President Greg Fenves said.
In 2008, UT was filling 81 percent of its incoming class with top 10 percenters, a realization that spurred legislators to alter the university’s admission policy from automatically accepting those in the top
10 percent to those in the top 7 percent.
Now, 75 percent of UT’s freshman class is made up of top 7 percenters who are admitted automatically via 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 at an April Senate Higher Education Committee meeting.
Among school districts, the sole component of the top 10 percent rule—class rank based on GPA—is calculated differently.
In Pflugerville ISD, the GPA of the 2016 class was calculated on a weighted scale. Advanced courses were graded on a 5.0 scale; pre-AP and other approved courses were graded on a 4.5 scale; and other TEKS-based courses were graded on a 4.0 scale.
Students at Connally High School in North Austin would have needed at least a 3.76 GPA to be in the 10 percent of the class or a 3.89 GPA to meet UT’s 7 percent cutoff, according to PfISD.
In Round Rock ISD, rank is calculated on a weighted system factoring in regular class grades on a 5.0 scale and advanced and TAG courses on a 6.0 scale.
At Westwood for the class of 2016, the 10 percent GPA cutoff is 5.36, and the 7 percent cutoff is 5.48, according to RRISD. The GPA cutoff was lower at McNeil High School where students needed a 4.93 GPA to meet the 10 percent benchmark or a 5.03 GPA for the 7 percent cutoff.
Austin ISD 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 top 10 percent at the district’s high schools for the class of 2016.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 22,185 students ranking between the 11th and 25th percentiles of their class in 2016 went to a state public university. Almost 37,000 students in the other 75 percent also went to Texas public universities.
At UT, 27,215 Texas students applied in 2016; 18,744 were accepted. Of those, 12,733 were in the top 10 percent; 1,499 fell between the 11th and 25th percentiles. Of those who enrolled, 5,571 were in the 10 percent; 1,964 were outside of it.
“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.”
Donna Balser, owner of Austin-based tutoring service College Nannies, Sitters and Tutors, said many students use her services to maintain their position in the top 10 percent. She said student GPAs can be negatively affected if they take electives, such as band, art or choir.
“Additionally, we hear of students transferring to other schools that may not be so rigorous in order to be at the top of their respective class,” she said.
She had words of encouragement to students outside of their class’s top 10 percent.
“By being the best ‘whole student’ that they can, hard-working and over-achieving students still have opportunities to get into the schools of their choice,” she said.
One benefit of the top 10 percent rule is that it forced UT to increase geographic diversity. The latest freshman class, for example, came from 240 Texas counties, Fenves 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.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, said the 10 percent rule once served a purpose in improving higher education’s diversity but is no longer doing so.
He proposed a bill this legislative session that would cap the number of automatic top 10 percent enrollees at 30 percent of UT’s incoming class.
In 2009, UT received 21,157 applications from non-top 10 percenters but could only admit 4,008 students through its holistic admission process. In 2016 the university received 35,797 non-top 10 percent applications for 7,360 available slots, according to UT admissions data.
But the bill was unsuccessful as the legislative session came to a close on May 31. Seliger said May 19 that his bill, Senate Bill 2119, did not have enough votes to scale back the top 10 percent rule, according to reporting from The Texas Tribune.
Even with further analysis, Seliger said he 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.