As a former Navy Seal and admiral in command of all U.S. Special Operations forces, UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven spent three decades serving and leading the most elite military forces in the world. He has made it clear that he now wants the state flagship to join the best of the best among the nation’s public universities.
But after seeing the system flagship turn away thousands of the state’s elite students because they did not make the top 10 percent (actually 7 percent at UT Austin this year) in the graduating classes of the state’s most competitive high schools, the chancellor sees the automatic admission rule as a major obstacle to keeping the brightest students in Texas–and at UT Austin.
“Candidly, right now what is holding us back is the 10 percent rule,” McRaven told state higher ed leaders recently.
The motives of the Top 10 proponents are certainly worthy–to increase the enrollment of high-achieving minority students at UT Austin. But what makes the rule (sort of) work is that it is predicated on the fact that many of the state’s high schools remain almost entirely segregated. Sometimes this is because an entire region is heavily Latino (the Rio Grande Valley); but elsewhere the segregation in urban centers is based on race and income.
Many of these high schools are among the least competitive in the state. Graduating in the top 7 percent of a high school that offers no AP or honors sections and that has low mean test scores is far different from reaching the top 7 percent of a graduating class of 800 students that has 70 National Merit Scholars.
What can happen to suburban students at very competitive schools is that an unweighted high school GPA of 3.9 (high school rank top 11 percent) and an SAT score of 1440 might not make the cut at UT Austin. Three-fourths of the school’s admits are from the top 7 percent pool; the other 25 percent of admits face a pool that is as competitive as many of the nation’s most selective private colleges.
And, McRaven would say, too many of these students are going out of state, where it costs them more and where they might remain rather than return to Texas. Moreover, the chancellor believes the rule is part of the reason that UT Austin, despite having a stellar faculty, is not rated as highly as it should be among the nation’s public universities.
“Candidly, I think we need to take a hard look at some of the ways that we address higher education, particularly at our flagship program. Your flagship, your number one university in the state of Texas is ranked 52nd on the U.S. News & World Report. To me that’s unacceptable. A lot of things drive that. The 10 percent rule drives that,” he told higher ed leaders.
While he did not specify exactly how the rule contributes to lower rankings, the graduation rate metric used by U.S. News might be lower for UT Austin in part because of the relatively lower standards in many poor and mostly segregated high schools. (It is possible that the chancellor also sees the large size of UT Austin as another issue.)
If the chancellor can find a way to maintain or improve minority enrollment and do away with the Top 10 rule, he might prevail. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not scrap the university’s current holistic admissions policy for students outside the top 7 percent, he might have a better chance; otherwise, his task will be as difficult as many he faced as a military leader.
“[The Top 10 Rule] is a very very sensitive topic,” State Rep. Robert Alonzo told McRaven. “It is a topic that we have discussed at length from all different aspects, and I would hope that we have put it to rest for a while.”
McRaven was undeterred. “I am a new chancellor, so I am going to take that opportunity to re-open that look again,” he said. “Because my charge is to make us the very best, and I think there are some obstacles to doing that.”
Alonzo replied: “Well, I accept the challenge, sir.”
Stay tuned, for this could be a big battle indeed.