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Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as Minorities' College Enrollment Improves in Texas

Minorities' College Enrollment Improves in Texas

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As policymakers consider ways to raise minority enrollment in college without using race as a factor in admissions, their eyes have been on Texas and its "10 percent" solution.

New statistics suggest that the Texas plan—which guarantees slots in the state's public universities to top-ranked high school graduates— is boosting the enrollment of minority students as its proponents intended.

The number of minority students who enrolled last fall as freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin is greater than in years when race-based admissions were used, according to a report released last month. Administrators are crediting the increase to the state law, implemented in 1997, mandating that all 35 public universities offer automatic enrollment to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, without regard to SAT scores or grade point averages.

Students must still submit college applications that include test scores and grade point averages, but they are guaranteed acceptance.

"It's a significant enrollment increase—almost 30 percent" over 1996, the last year race- based admissions policies were used, said Bruce Walker, the director of admissions and associate vice president of student affairs for UT- Austin.

Not everyone is willing to call the policy a success. Critics maintain there are fundamental flaws in the Texas plan and similar models that have been adopted or are under consideration in California and Florida. ("Calif. Schools Get Rankings Based on Tests," Feb. 2, 2000.) Such policies ignore the problems of inadequate K-12 funding and decades-long discrimination, the critics say, and assume that class rank successfully predicts how students will perform in college.

Students from low-caliber high schools who are automatically admitted to top-notch institutions such as UT-Austin and Texas A&M University in College Station won't be able to compete academically and are likely to ultimately drop out, opponents of automatic admissions contend.

Such plans "don't get at the fundamental problem that schools ... with low-income and minority students need more resources," said Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Institute of Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based research organization. "This is a quick fix."

But many educators and policymakers in Texas see the automatic-admissions plan as far superior to race-based admissions and financial-aid policies. And they say it is the best strategy for promoting minority admissions in the wake of the 1996 federal appeals court decision in Hopwood v. Texas. That ruling, which held that the use of race as a criterion in admissions was unconstitutional, sent shock waves through higher education nationwide.

Crunching the Numbers

Mr. Walker of UT-Austin points to fall 1999 enrollment numbers as evidence of the progress made in recruiting minority students since the 10 percent plan went into effect.

Last fall, 4 percent of the campus's freshman class—286 students—identified themselves as African-American, up from 3 percent, or 190 students, in 1997, he said. Fourteen percent of the class—976 students—said last fall that they were of Hispanic descent, an increase from 13 percent, or 892 students, in 1997.

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the body that oversees the state's 900,000-student university system, the number of first-time African- American freshmen rose by 23 percent at the state's eight most selective public universities in 1999, an increase from 1,512 students in 1996 to 1,855 last year.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic students rose 6 percent, from 3,276 in 1996 to 3,469 in 1999. Officials acknowledge, though, that it is difficult to discern if that rise is attributable to the automatic-admissions plan or simply reflects the continuing growth in the state's Hispanic population.

Both David Gardner, the deputy assistant commissioner for planning for the coordinating board, and Mr. Walker say they are encouraged by the increased minority representation, but they point out that the total number of students in all Texas colleges still does not come close to reflecting the percentages of minority residents in the state.

As of this year, 31 percent of the state population is Hispanic, and 11 percent is black, said Steven Murdock, the chief demographer for the Texas State Data Center.

Currently, only about 9 percent of Hispanics and 10 percent of African-Americans ages 15 to 34 are participating in higher education, the coordinating board reports.

And of those students who enroll in college, only 34 percent of Hispanics and 27 percent of African-Americans earn a bachelor's degree.

"Minority groups graduate from high school in lower rates," Mr. Walker said. "They are not as likely to go to college, and if they do go, it's not usually a four-year college. Our students reflect the pipeline."

Giving minority students access to college by way of the 10 percent plan is only part of the solution, Mr. Walker said. Officials of UT-Austin say they've successfully recruited and retained such students by providing need- and merit- based financial aid and a network of academic and social support. Texas A&M is following that example.

Stopping the 'Brain Drain'

In a further attempt to attract students from underrepresented groups to the Austin campus and to Texas A&M in College Station, both universities located the dozens of high schools that send few students to their institutions and began offering full tuition, room, and board to graduates in the top 10 percent of their classes.

UT-Austin began granting renewable $2,000 awards at 51 high schools through the Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship program in 1998. Texas A&M began piloting the Century Scholars program in 20 high schools in Houston this past fall and will present 20 scholarships worth up to $11,000 each.

Adequate funding is key to reducing the state's minority "brain drain," said E. Lynn Rodriguez, the general counsel and director of access and equity for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. After the Hopwood ruling, many Texas students left for out-of-state colleges that still dispensed race-based financial aid, she said.

"Whoever gives them the best deal, they'll take it," Ms. Rodriguez said. "There is $500 million of unmet financial need [in Texas]. It is a very real problem when you have a large population that has very few financial resources."

But even when students leap the financial hurdles, the issue of academic performance remains.

"There is no evidence that class rank is an indicator of success in college," Mr. Merisotis, the Washington-based policy analyst, said.

Fail-Safe Gateway

But administrators at UT-Austin say they work to prevent recipients of the Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship from flubbing their college careers. All students with combined SAT scores under 1000 are required to participate in the Gateway Program to retain their scholarships.

The program offers extensive support services, including peer advisers, counseling, free tutoring, small classes, and recreational activities.

"The risk [of failure] is high, but not just because of academics," said Margarita M. Arellano, the associate dean of students for retention services at the university. "When you're a first-generation student, you don't have the support. A lot of times, if they don't find someone to help guide them right away, they'll leave even if they're doing well."

UT- Austin student Tommy Sigala, 19, said his first semester of college would have been more difficult without the Gateway Program.

Though the freshman earned a 3.6 grade point average last fall, he at first felt overwhelmed in Austin, where the sprawling campus accommodates nearly 50,000 undergraduates and lecture halls sometimes include 400 students.

"I'm in college now, and we're all on an equal playing field," said Mr. Sigala, who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at Socorro High School in El Paso. "I have to run out and get the prize or someone will take it from me."

Students like Mr. Sigala perform regardless of their backgrounds because they are hard workers and determined to do well, said Gary R. Engelgau, the assistant provost for enrollment at Texas A&M.

In fact, he said, such students often do better than others who have significantly higher high school averages and SAT scores.

"This doesn't surprise us at all," Mr. Engelgau said, adding that many such scholars opted to take the most strenuous courseloads available at their high schools. "There is a long-range concern, however, that students who don't prepare as well in high school in order to stay in the top 10 percent ... won't be successful in college," he said.

One More Door

A study conducted by mathematics professors at Texas A&M last year documents clear discrepancies in the abilities of graduates from high schools of different calibers.

"There was a stunning difference," said Bill Rundell, the chairman of the mathematics department. "Of the schools at the very top of the list, even the graduates in the 60th percentile made a 2.5 or 2.6 grade point average. For the schools at the very bottom, even the graduates in the top 5 percent made only a 1.4 or 1.5."

Even so, the automatic- admissions approach generates hope at many Texas high schools where inspiration is hard to come by, said Jose C. Davila, the lead counselor at John F. Kennedy High School in San Antonio, where 99 percent of the 1,500 students are poor enough by federal standards to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

When there is hope, students will strive, he said.

Before the 10 percent policy became law, Mr. Davila's high school sent five or fewer students to UT-Austin and Texas A&M in College Station each year. Since the plan's implementation, however, more than 20 students have enrolled at those sought-after campuses annually.

"It has made our students more competitive and more conscious of being up there in the top 10 percent," Mr. Davila said. "It is another door that is open to them, and one that they thought they couldn't open up. Everybody is equal."

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Pages 1,14

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