March 18, 2007
Ten years ago, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, was a key sponsor of legislation that gave any student in the top 10 percent of a high school graduating class in Texas the right to enroll in any public university in the state.Now, his successor, freshman Sen. Kirk Watson, also a Democrat, is grappling with the fallout.The law was intended to boost minority enrollment at a time when public universities in Texas were barred from using affirmative action in admissions. But things have changed since then.The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 in a case involving the University of Michigan that race and ethnicity can be considered.And with more and more students gaining entry to the University of Texas under the top 10 percent law — 71 percent of UT’s current crop of freshmen hail from Texas high schools — the university is eager to preserve some capacity to choose students based on other factors, such as whether they overcame hardship or possess unusual artistic skills.Under the the top 10 percent rule, black enrollment went from 3.5 percent of undergraduate, graduate and law students in 1997 to 3.9 percent in the fall of 2006, and Hispanic enrollment went from 12.6 percent to 15 percent.Capacity has not been a major issue at the state’s other public flagship college, Texas A&M University, where top 10 percent students constitute just under half of freshmen from Texas schools.State lawmakers have filed about a dozen bills on the issue.Some would limit automatic admission to 40 percent or 50 percent of the freshman class. Others would repeal the law. Still others would preserve the status quo.The House approved limits on the law in 2003 and 2005, but the measures stalled in the Senate.Watson’s position, which is still evolving, could be pivotal.Although Watson, a former mayor of Austin, has not filed a top 10 percent bill, he has introduced a measure that would establish a special commission to develop a long-term plan for higher education. Such a plan would designate additional flagships, among other things.Here is an edited account of an interview last week with Watson:American-Statesman: What’s your view on top 10 percent?Watson: What I’m trying to address this session of the Legislature is that we need to be planning for higher education. One of the key issues is to start a process to prepare and plan for more than just the two flagship universities that we have. We need to create sufficient capacity for Texans that want to attend tier one research universities, flagship universities.Q: UT wouldn’t be an issue if we had a third flagship?A: Well, arguably. Potentially. So much of what is good about our economic development and quality of life in this region comes from the fact that good decisions were made about the University of Texas 20 and 30 years ago. So the question is, are we making those decisions today so that five, 10, 20, 30 years from now, we’ll be able to say the same thing? I’m working closely with the University of Texas; I’m going to work closely with members of the Legislature to try to find a situation where we place value on the top 10 percent rule but we don’t create insurmountable capacity problems.Q: So what would you like to see legislatively? Status quo? Modifications? Repeal?A: Certainly not a repeal. We’re going to need to find a mechanism that allows for the top 10 percent rule to continue but make sure that what we don’t do is reach capacity problems that the University of Texas is already facing.Q: Something along the lines of the approach proposed by Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), a 50 percent cap?A: I’m not committing right now to any specific numbers. What I am doing is trying to work with all parties to see if we can find a reasonable approach. But I want us to use this as an opportunity to focus on the bigger picture.Q: So you do not want repeal, and you do not want to leave it alone?A: I suppose that’s the right way to say it. We need to figure out a way that we get the value of the top 10 percent rule and at the same time meet other needs of those schools.Q: What about the underlying purpose of the law, to boost minority enrollment? It hasn’t really had much effect on minority enrollment, based on the figures.A: I believe that we need to continue to act in affirmative ways to assure an increase in the minority population. That’s one of the reasons I favor having a top 10 percent rule. I do believe it provides a vehicle for helping meet those needs. It also, I think, helps meet other needs in the sense that it introduces a broader population to attending the University of Texas and Texas A&M that otherwise might not have been recruited by those schools.Q: Do you criticize UT for not getting the minority numbers up more than it has?A: I think we need to get the numbers higher. I have visited with representatives of the university and believe them to be committed to getting those numbers up. I believe ultimately the proof is in the numbers.Q: Some of the critics of the top 10 percent law are arguing this session along a somewhat different tack, namely, that if you throttle it back, you will actually be able to recruit more minority students. Do you buy that?A: If you don’t have pretty much all of your students coming in under the top 10 percent rule, it arguably creates greater discretion for the school. But the proof is in the numbers. We need to assure that we are increasing the number of minority students that are being recruited and enrolled. And I don’t think you ought to do away with one of those tools. I think you continue to utilize that tool in an appropriate form. And you look for other tools.If in fact it is true, that it would allow for more discretion to have some spot where the top 10 rule stops, then let’s see if that works. But the truth of the matter is, I don’t think you do away with the top 10 percent rule with the argument that it will allow us to do better on race. I think it is one of the tools that we need to continue to utilize for that.