Lawmakers Find Unlikely Unanimity on Top 10 Law

For as much as the Top 10 Percent Law is loved and hated, lawmakers’ support for an extension to cap the rule is as surprising as it is unlikely.

Lawmakers Find Unlikely Unanimity on Top 10
The students who will first set foot on the Forty Acres this fall were toddlers when the Texas Legislature passed the Top 10 Percent law in 1997. Odds are, their ticket to Austin was punched because they graduated in the top seven percent of their high school class.

But not all of them will have earned automatic admission. A quarter of those freshmen will be admitted under a holistic review—extracurricular activities, community service, grades, and (for now) race—thanks to a 2009 modification to the law that capped the percentage of the freshman class made up of Top 10 students. That cap, Senate Bill 175, could be going away without legislative action.

Ever since the Top 10 Percent Law was passed in the wake of the Hopwood v. Texas decision as a substitute for the use of race in admissions, legislators from urban and rural districts have squabbled with their counterparts in suburban districts about the law’s advisability as public policy. Party loyalty has often had little to do with whether one legislator or another supported it, and even some legislators who support increased diversity have questioned whether Top 10 is the best mechanism for achieving it.

At a Senate higher education committee meeting this week, a bill extending the 75 percent cap on Top 10 until the 2017-18 academic year passed unanimously. Later the same day, the House higher education committee passed a matching bill, also unanimously. At least in the Senate, the motivating animus appears to have been overwhelming confidence in the current UT-Austin administration’s commitment to diversity.

“I’m going to support this bill,” said Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas). “I want to send a strong signal, a signal about where I am about Top 10 Percent at UT with you at the helm,” he said, indicating UT president Bill Powers and admissions director Kedra Ishop, who were testifying before the committee.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” West said. “I recognize that, but I think that Texas is moving in the right direction as it relates to diversifying the student body.”

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” West said. “I recognize that, but I think that Texas is moving in the right direction as it relates to diversifying the student body.”

Senate higher education chair Kel Seliger’s main concern, he said, was to preserve for UT-Austin some discretion in making admissions decisions. Without the cap, UT-Austin officials said that almost all of the freshman class would be admitted under a single criterion. Seliger has previously told the Texas Exes he thinks schools should be making admissions decisions whenever possible, not the Legislature.

Yet the single criterion used under Top 10—class rank—was meant to draw minority and rural students to UT, and by some measures it has been a success. When the idea was first introduced, UT officials balked, but a group of urban African American and Hispanic lawmakers, like then-state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) pushed for it.

Since then, the percentage of minority students has risen at UT-Austin. Now, lawmakers like West and Sen. Judith Zaffirini BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member, (D-Laredo) are endorsing the cap—and endorsing UT’s efforts to foster a diverse campus community.

“We would not have passed Senate Bill 175 had you not been president,” Zaffirini said to Powers, “because a lot of the people who voted, especially the Hispanic-American senators, the African-American senators, were really depending on you, and reflecting our trust in you to make this work.”

Editor’s Note: The Texas Exes supports legislation to extend the cap on Top 10. Read more about the Texas Exes legislative priorities here.

The Goddess of Liberty atop the Texas State Capitol. Photo by meg via Flickr Creative Commons.


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