The Top 10 Percent Rule in Texas: Highly Questionable Results

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from the most recent issue of The Alcalde, the alumni publication of the University of Texas at Austin. The automatic admission of a student in the top 10 percent of  his or her high school class, in place since 1997, has had unintended consequences for minority students and non-minority students alike.

By 2008, more than 80 percent of incoming freshman at UT-Austin were admitted under the [10 percent] rule, leaving the university to choose less than 20 percent of its own incoming class. Then-chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT-Austin president Bill Powers appealed to the 2009 Texas Legislature to cap automatic admissions at 50 percent of each incoming class. Without action, they predicted, UT wouldn’t be able to admit any students from outside the U.S. or Texas by 2015.

Legislators intervened specifically for UT-Austin, but compromised on a 75 percent cap. Since then, the university has admitted the top one percent, two percent, and so on until it reached the cap, which means that for the incoming class of 2019, UT-Austin’s top 10 Percent Law is really a top eight percent rule.

As ProPublica notes, the competition for non-automatic admission to UT in 2008 was tougher than getting into Harvard.

While applications from minority students more than doubled in the first 10 years of the law, its success is still debatable. A 2012 Princeton study of UT and Texas A&M concluded that the law actually benefited white students more than Hispanic students. While test scores rose at smaller state universities, applicants at the flagships came from more affluent, less diverse high schools and graduates from poorer schools, particularly Hispanic graduates, were less likely to apply.

In a state-required report compiled in the fall of 2014, UT officials noted that between 2013-14, African-American and Hispanic representation actually decreased, as did the number of admitted and enrolled first-generation students and those from lower socioeconomic groups.

One of the barriers to coming to UT, presumably, is cost. If, for example, you come from San Perlita, at Texas’ southern tip, where more than half of residents under 18 live below the poverty line, heading more than 300 miles north just to pay tuition, rent, and buy books for at least four years is a daunting prospect. In response to the declining numbers from populations meant to be served by the law, UT has launched the Texas Advance scholarship program, which the university says could essentially offset tuition when paired with state and federal aid.

While a handful of bills relating to the rule have been filed during the 2015 legislative session, only one would fundamentally change it, even then only altering it to automatically admit students from the top eight percent. That rule wouldn’t change much at UT, which is already essentially a top eight percent institution. Despite questions of its effect and effectiveness, it seems the law will stick around, at least for a while.