A key state senator has abandoned his plan to repeal a 20-year-old law that grants high-ranking students automatic admission to any of the more than three dozen public universities in Texas. Instead, Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, wants to give the schools authority to limit such students to 30 percent of the incoming class from Texas.
The Senate Higher Education Committee, which Seliger chairs, approved his substitute version of Senate Bill 2119 by a party-line vote Wednesday of 4-2. Besides Seliger, Republican Sens. Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, Paul Bettencourt of Houston and Larry Taylor of Friendswood voted for the measure, while Democratic Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and José Menéndez of San Antonio were opposed. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, a full-throated defender of the current law, was absent. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
There have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to repeal or sharply scale back the automatic admission law over the years, suggesting that Seliger’s proposal, even in its modified version, faces an uphill battle, especially if it gets to the House. 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.
Currently, a student graduating in the top 10 percent of a Texas high school can attend the public university of his or her choice — except the University of Texas at Austin. The law allows UT to limit its automatically admitted students to 75 percent of the university’s incoming freshmen from Texas; the cutoff for automatic admission varies but was set by the university at the top 8 percent for students entering this past fall.
Seliger’s bill would let all public universities, not just the Austin flagship, apply a 30 percent limit. It would take effect in the 2021-22 academic year — far enough out that, even if the measure passes, a future Legislature with a different view could revise it before then.
Seliger told the American-Statesman that his substitute is a response to “political realities” but that he hasn’t changed his fundamental view that the Legislature shouldn’t dictate admissions.
“Is it the role of government to run the admissions department of any university?” he said. “It’s just another example of big government.”
The automatic admission law, also known as the top 10 percent law, was enacted in 1997 with a goal of bumping up minority enrollment, especially at UT, after a lawsuit and a state attorney general’s ruling halted affirmative action in admissions.
Subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have upheld narrowly tailored consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. Most recently, the high court approved UT’s consideration of such characteristics for a fourth of its entering freshmen from Texas last year by a 4-3 vote in a case known as Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
“We will enact whatever law the Legislature passes, trying to build diversity by geography, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity looking at students holistically and considering the totality of their life experiences,” said Maurie McInnis, UT’s executive vice president and provost.