Texas schools' 10% solution
Alternative to affirmative action under scrutiny
by Lee Hockstader, Washington
Post and San
Francisco Gate, Saturday, November 9, 2002
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Jazmin Padron arrived in Texas three years ago, a bright-eyed
Mexican teenager with little English and no thought of
attending college. A top high school student, she's now all
but assured admission to the University of Texas at Austin.
Davin Hunt always assumed he'd attend college, and no wonder
-- his parents and 20 of his cousins attended UT Austin, and
virtually all the students at his rich, almost uniformly white
high school near Dallas go on to higher education. But Hunt,
whose grades don't quite make the top 10 percent of his class,
may not be joining the family's Longhorn tradition.
Beyond their Texas residency and sunny dispositions, Padron
and Hunt have little in common. But both are busy adapting
their future plans to accommodate a 5-year-old state law under
which the top 10 percent of every high school's graduating
seniors are automatically eligible for admission to public
universities in Texas.
Now, as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether to rule on the
constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions,
Texas' law is being scrutinized as a model that could replace
the explicitly race-based admissions criteria that have been a
feature of public education for decades. Following the Texas
law, which first applied to high school seniors graduating in
1998, Florida and California adopted percentage plans for
admission to state-funded colleges, and other states are
watching Texas' experience closely.
It came after a federal appeals court in 1996 threw out the
University of Texas Law School's affirmative action program,
saying admission officers could no longer consider race when
picking students. African American and Latino student
Texas lawmakers swiftly enacted the 10 percent law, intending
to ensure continued diversity at public universities without
inviting further constitutional challenges. As long as
neighborhoods and the state's 1,800 or so high schools
remained largely segregated by race, significant numbers of
African American and Latino students would be guaranteed
places at public universities. Conservatives who never liked
explicitly race-based admissions criteria found little to
object to in the meritocratic gloss of the new law.
To university officials, who openly regret the death of
affirmative action, the 10 percent law is a way to achieve its
goals without adopting the means.
"You're doing it without doing it," UT chancellor Mark Yudof
said. "It's a benign effort to achieve a certain sort of
social justice. . . . We don't want a permanent underclass in
For Padron, the Mexican immigrant who is now a senior at a
middle-class high school in Austin, the 10 percent rule has
removed most of the anxiety associated with college
applications. A top student and promising dancer, she found
out a few weeks ago that she was guaranteed admission to any
state- funded university she liked, including the flagship
campus of UT-Austin.
For Hunt, a senior at the ultra-competitive Highland Park High
School in suburban Dallas, the Texas law has clouded his
prospects. Although he's a good student, active in student
government and sports, his grades aren't in the very top tier.
That may have harmed his chances at getting into his first
choice, UT-Austin's business program, which is largely filled
with top 10 percenters. Although his overall strong record may
yet win him a spot in some other program at UT-Austin, he's
thinking about leaving the state for college.
The law's effect on the student body makeup at UT-Austin has
been subtle. Overall, the proportion of top 10 percent
students in the freshman class has edged up to 53 percent in
the current first-year class, from 46 percent in 1997, just
before the law took effect.
After the initial, sharp drop in minority enrollment following
the appeals court's decision, the 10 percent law has helped
the numbers of African American and Latino freshmen recover
approximately to their previous levels. More than 14 percent
of this year's entering class is Latino; about 3.5 percent is
Still, those numbers fall well short of the overall minority
population in Texas, which is about 30 percent Latino and 12
percent African American. The primary beneficiary of the new
rule has been Asian Americans.