It Was Intended to Increase Diversity in Colleges, But is the Top Ten Percent Rule Working?

While the rule helps some students, it hurts others. But there’s no easy fix.

By Laura RiceMarch 30, 2016 10:57 am

For close to 20 years, the law of the land has meant Texas high schoolers graduating in the top 10 percent of their class have been guaranteed admission into the state’s best public universities. The top 10 percent rule was thought up as way to diversify college enrollment. But there’s disagreement as to whether that’s working.

Schools like the University of Texas at Austin are still using a form of affirmative action. It’s a big, complicated story that the Texas Tribune is unwinding in a three-part series, reported by Matthew Watkins.

Watkins says that in theory, the rule should increase diversity. But the reality is a bit more complex. The law was originally created back in 1996 to counterbalance a state law that banned affirmative action in college admissions.

“That ended up being a temporary ban – the Supreme Court overruled it – but the law has remained in place ever since,” Watkins says. “Since the law was passed, places like UT, Texas A&M are more diverse than they used to be, but they’re still far less diverse than the state of Texas.”

So, there has been some success in increasing minority and low-income enrollment. But the rule isn’t a cure-all. There are several factors that affect enrollment by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Watkins says some students in the top ten percent of their class in certain schools weren’t even aware of the rule. Because of its size, Bryan Adams High School in Dallas would have about 30-40 each year who would qualify for admission to UT under the “top 10 percent” rule, but the school sends only a few students a year to UT, Watkins says.

“There’s a lot of reasons for that – students don’t want to go far from home,” he says. “A lot of them, their parents didn’t attend college, so they don’t even necessarily know the benefits of attending a great school like UT. … While the top 10 percent rule, in theory, kind of levels the playing field for who can get int UT, it takes more than that to get kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to actually go to these schools.”

On the other hand, students from wealthier high schools with better academic programs may not be able to get one of those automatic admission spots because of fierce competition. One example Watkins cites is Highland Park in the Dallas area.

“You have kids (at Highland Park) who, you know, are getting into places like Stanford and Vanderbilt who are not automatically getting into UT,” Watkins says. “And theres so few slots at UT for those non-automatic admits that sometimes you’ll see them getting into a place like Vanderbilt but not getting into UT-Austin.”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.