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Bill would repeal automatic college admission for top Texas students


There have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to repeal automatic admission since its 1997 enactment.

UT-Austin’s Gregory L. Fenves said more control over whom to admit would lead to greater student diversity.

A 20-year-old state law that grants high-ranking students automatic admission to any public university in the state would be repealed under a proposal by the chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Senate Bill 2119, by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would do away with the automatic admission law, also known as the top 10 percent law. It was enacted in 1997 with a goal of bumping up minority enrollment, especially at the University of Texas, after a lawsuit halted affirmative action in admissions.

Subsequent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have upheld narrowly tailored consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. Most recently, the high court upheld the Austin flagship’s consideration of such characteristics for a fourth of its entering freshmen last year in a case known as Fisher v. the University of Texas.

There have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to repeal the automatic admission law over the years, suggesting that Seliger’s proposal faces an uphill battle. Representatives of various groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the South Texas Association of Schools, are urging lawmakers to retain the current law.

Under the law, a student graduating in the top 10 percent of a Texas high school can attend the public university of his or her choice — except UT-Austin, where the cutoff for admission this past fall was 8 percent. State law allows UT to limit its automatically admitted students to 75 percent of the university’s incoming freshman class.

UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday that there are pros and cons to having such a large portion of the freshman class determined by the singular factor of class rank. Fenves said UT would be able to improve diversity with more control over whom to admit.

The biggest benefit of automatic admission, Fenves said, is an increase in geographic diversity, with students hailing from 240 of the state’s 254 counties. “I don’t think it would have happened without that law,” he said.

But he said the law doesn’t allow the university to consider race, ethnicity, family circumstances, outside activities, special talents, test scores, socioeconomic status and other characteristics for students who qualify for automatic admission. Only the remaining 25 percent of the entering class is subject to such holistic review.

One consequence is that the university sometimes has difficulty filling some majors, such as education, Fenves said. What’s more, he said, a student who, for example, is a terrific violinist but who got a bad grade in chemistry might not qualify for automatic admission. Such a student would be considered for admission along with other students who didn’t qualify for automatic entry, a pool that numbered 21,000 competing for 3,300 admission offers this past fall.

Despite its foundational purpose of improving racial and ethnic diversity, the automatic admission law has had little effect on UT-Austin’s most persistent challenge, black freshman enrollment, which has averaged a little more than 4 percent since 1995, an American-Statesman analysis found. Blacks make up 5.1 percent of the current freshman class.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said UT should redouble its efforts to boost black enrollment — for example, by recruiting more heavily at predominantly black high schools. “They’ve got a bunch of them in the basketball program and in the football program,” he said.

As for the proposed repeal of automatic admission, West said: “We have struck a delicate balance between top 10 percent and holistic review, and the program should be continued.”

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said the overall data show that this is a good time to make a change in the automatic admission law, suggesting that repealing it would lead to greater diversity in the long run.

Senators said they would leave the repeal bill pending to gather more information.

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