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 Article of Interest - Cultural Issues

Texas schools' 10% solution
Alternative to affirmative action under scrutiny
by Lee Hockstader, Washington Post and San Francisco Gate, Saturday, November 9, 2002
Original URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2002/11/09/MN70198.DTL
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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 enrollments plummeted.

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 America."

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 African American.

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.
 

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