The Talented Tenth

Complaints arise against the top 10% law because it's working all too well

There's a Texas legislative corollary to the old saw, "No good deed goes unpunished." It runs, "No good law goes unrepealed."

The latest unhappy target is 1997's HB 588, more popularly known as the "Top 10% Law." Under this nationally heralded response to the U.S. Supreme Court's limitations on racially based affirmative action, any student in a Texas high school who graduates in the top 10% of his or her high school class is automatically eligible for admission to any state college or university. The law was passed to broaden the opportunities for all Texas students, and more specifically to respond to the claim that "affirmative action" somehow undermines "meritocracy" by giving a nonacademic advantage to minority applicants.

How has HB 588 worked? Extremely well.

According to the latest self-analysis at UT-Austin, "The entire entering freshman class of 2003 was the most diverse in the university's history. The percentage of Hispanics reached an historic high (16%) and African-American representation equals an eight-year high (4%). The percentage of White students has fallen below 60% for the first time in the university's history." That's an odd way to put the latter statistic, but the historical context, of course, is that white Texans now (officially) represent only a slight majority of state residents. The Top 10% law has made the UT campus' demographic much more representative of the state as a whole.

Less well publicized are the geographical benefits of the law. There are roughly 1,500 high schools in Texas, yet under previous admissions standards, half of UT's entering classes were coming from just 64 schools – primarily large, upper-middle-class suburban schools. Another 800 schools provided the rest of the class – leaving students from more than 600 Texas schools on the outside looking in.

Now statewide representation is much broader, and students from small rural schools who never had a shot at UT are entering and doing well. A law primarily intended to benefit minority students is also lending opportunities to less-privileged white students in marginalized communities.


Who's on First?

So, what's the problem? Despite annual reports from the universities that amply demonstrate the effectiveness of the law, Gov. Rick Perry said recently, "I really don't see how it has worked the way people projected it would work." Not content to declare the limitations of his vision, Perry added, "And I think, across the board, Texans see it as a problem." By "Texans across the board" the governor generally means his major campaign contributors, chief of staff Mike "the Ax" Toomey, and anti-government fanatic Grover Norquist. So we may want to seek a broader sample.

Last week before the Senate Higher Education Committee, a handful of complainants insisted that the law is "unfair" because some students from "elite" state high schools can no longer expect automatically to attend UT-Austin, and therefore the school isn't "attracting the best student body." Recently a Houston lawyer whose privately educated son was rejected by UT, and sentenced instead to exile at the University of Colorado, complained to The New York Times that the students matriculating under the 10% law "are not prepared."

That, too, is demonstrably false. Since the Top 10% law took effect, students admitted under the law have consistently earned higher grade point averages at UT than their non-Top 10 counterparts, even when their classmates' SAT scores were 200 or 300 points higher. This would suggest that four years of accomplishment in high school says more about a student's potential than one number on a standardized test. (The TAKS is a subject for another day, but the analogy certainly bears pondering.)

And as the joint testimony of the Texas NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens pointed out last week, students at wealthy suburban schools often have a structural advantage the official numbers conceal: There are more resources for "advanced placement" and "honors" courses at those schools, delivering a GPA bonus (generally a full point) in their schoolwide averages. The Top 10% law, to use the favorite cliché of the 1997 Lege, "levels the playing field."


The Line Forms Here

No doubt it causes dismay in some white Texas households that the Divine Right of Darlin' Trey to attend the McCombs School of Business is now to be shared with the traditionally Lesser Orders of Texas. But to call it "unfair" – after 150 years of structural discrimination against minority applicants – is a real stretch. As LULAC's Ana Yáñez-Correa bluntly put it to reporters last week, "Join the club." "Some of my friends said, 'Oh, Ana, you shouldn't say that,' but I say, the truth hurts," she said later. "People who no longer have automatic advantages that put them at the head of the line are suddenly discovering what it's like for the rest of students in Texas. And it's about time."

Indeed, the real culprits in this story – one of diminishing educational resources for all Texans – are the politicians who would rather spend money on highways and prisons than on schools, and the administrators who determined that only Austin and College Station should be the seats of "top-tier" state universities. Even UT, now lobbying for a cap in its Top 10% admissions, acknowledges that more students have been turned away because of the overall enrollment cap – 52,000 in one place is quite enough, thank you – than from the effects of the 10% law.

If there's an argument to be made for tweaking the law, it's for more affirmative action, not less – those minority proportions, in relation to the state's actual population, remain far too low. And if that also means pouring more resources into state campuses as well as hundreds of neglected high schools so that more than the handful who win the 10% lottery can aspire to Texas university educations, so be it. If Perry and his colleagues at the Lege want more top-flight Texas high school students to stay home to attend college, they should be willing and eager to spend more money on education.

If not, they should put a cork in it. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Top 10%, HB588

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