Law & Courts

Affirmative Action: Texas Alternative Gets Mixed Reviews

By Sean Cavanagh — March 26, 2003 13 min read
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Visions of college, that storied idyll promised in sleek brochures and recruiters’ handshakes, are unfolding once again before seniors at Charles H. Milby High School, where turnoffs to lesser destinations are never far from sight. This spring, another graduating class is scrambling to fill out applications and scholarship forms, tickets to a world removed from the discount stereo shop, rickety strip mall, and scrap-filled lot crowding this brick campus.

The objective for many of the best students in this humble pocket of southeast Houston is entry into one of the state’s top public universities, and their primary route to that goal is the same: finish in the top 10 percent of their class.

What is not a factor, even at a school where childhood memories for many students trace to Mexico, is race or ethnicity. For the past six years, high school students across Texas have been able to win a guaranteed spot at any public university with a strong class rank—a colorblind admissions standard that is now drawing nationwide scrutiny as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a landmark case on affirmative action next week.

Texas’ model, and similar “percentage plans” in California and Florida, have been praised by supporters, including President Bush, as successful alternatives to race-based admissions. Others see a more dubious record of accomplishment.

What neither side disputes is that versions of such plans could become the norm if a majority of the high court, after it hears two cases challenging the University of Michigan’s policies on April 1, decide that the use of race as a factor in college admissions is unconstitutional. And while the overall force of the court’s decision will depend on the language of its ruling, many campus leaders clearly believe its reach will extend well beyond public universities to private colleges, too.

The percentage of blacks and Hispanics enrolling at Texas’ most selective flagship institution, the University of Texas at Austin, has climbed back to roughly its level in 1996, the last year before a federal court decision effectively led to a ban on affirmative action in admissions to state schools.

Those numbers—and the overall minority enrollments at Texas’ 35 public universities— fail to satisfy many critics, who say those schools should be doing much better, given the state’s surging minority population.

‘We’re Being Rewarded’

Yet the state’s policy has plenty of supporters, too, including many students near the top of the class of 2003 at Houston’s Milby High.

Some students see affirmative action as discriminatory. Others simply regard the percentage plan as an attainable, across-the-board target for all students, irrespective of how prestigious, or wealthy, their high schools are.

“We worked hard for four years, and we’re being rewarded,” said Mayra Guardiola, 18, who was in the top 3 percent of Milby’s senior class at last count. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, she moved to the United States with her parents and sister when she was 5 years old, where her father took a job as a machinist. “My parents kept stressing it—'You have to be in the top 10, you have to get straight A’s.’ ”

Students outside the top 10 percent can still get into Texas’ elite public universities—and statistics show that many do. But at schools from Houston’s urban core to its most affluent enclaves, the pressure to keep up class rank is squarely on the minds of many teenagers, who know that the slightest drop in grade point average in any year could be crucial.

“It’s a competition,” said Ms. Guardiola, who is considering Texas A&M University, another one of the Texas’ most selective state schools, and the University of Houston. “You get in the top 10 percent, you want to stay there.”

A Modest Effect

Everyone is at the mercy of the standard. On the city’s north side, Jefferson Davis High School senior Tristan Allen, 18, struggled through family problems his freshman year, and his GPA tanked. Over the next few years, he pulled it back up to a 2.9, but his most recent ranking had him at 106th in his class, out of 315.

He’s applied to several private colleges and public universities, including UT-Austin, and Davis High officials are certain that with his ability—and a 1250 SAT score—Mr. Allen will get accepted to at least a few of them. But he wishes he didn’t have to worry about yesterday’s failings.

“I pretty much bombed as a freshman,” said Mr. Allen, who is black, during a break from his after-school math club. “I kicked myself for not being able to handle it. [But in] getting into college, people should be judged on where they are now, and their potential.”

Race hasn’t been allowed as a factor in admissions at the state’s public universities since 1996, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, effectively forbade that practice in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Its ruling came in a lawsuit brought against the UT-Austin School of Law by four white applicants, known as Hopwood v. Texas. Not long afterward, an order by Texas’ then-attorney general told universities statewide they had to enforce a race-neutral policy in admissions.

A year after the appellate decision, the Texas legislature passed the 10 percent plan, hoping to maintain minority enrollment and giving students from all parts of the state the same opportunity to be accepted to a state university.

But while the percent plan has driven many students at Milby High and other schools to excel, its record in bringing racial and ethnic diversity to UT-Austin and Texas A&M, in College Station, is modest at best.

In 2002, the percentage of enrollment for Hispanic freshmen at UT-Austin was 14 percent, roughly the same as in 1996, the last year of affirmative action. African-American freshman enrollment there was only 3 percent in 2002, a drop from 4 percent in 1996. The portion of white freshmen also fell slightly over that six-year period, from 65 percent to 62 percent, and the population of Asian first-year students rose from 15 percent to 18 percent during that time.

At Texas A&M, meanwhile, enrollment for black freshmen fell from 3.6 percent in 1996 to 2.6 percent in 2002; Hispanic freshman enrollment dropped from 11.2 percent to 9.6 percent over that same period. Entries among first-year white students remained about steady at 83 percent, and the Asian percentages rose from 2.8 percent to 3.4 percent. Those numbers, provided by the school, include all first-year students, including part-time undergraduates and those whose existing credits might give them a class status other than freshmen.

Overall, the percentage of first-year black and Hispanic undergraduates in Texas’ 31 state four-year institutions has seen only minimal changes since Hopwood. While the raw number of students from those minority groups has surged within the system, the Latino population as a percentage of the freshman classes rose only from 20.1 percent in 1996 to 21.5 percent in 2001. Black students’ portion of the freshman ranks remained virtually the same: It was 12.5 percent in 1996 and 12.4 percent in 2001. Enrollment for white freshmen, meanwhile, dropped from 59.8 percent to 56.6 percent.

Those numbers include both the part-time and full-time population of 352,942 undergraduates, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the 10 percent plan, critics say, is that it hasn’t kept pace with the growth in Texas’ Hispanic population. While the state’s black population remained almost level over the past decade, and the non-Hispanic white population fell, the percentage of Hispanics jumped from 25.5 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2000. The growth of college-age Latinos was even greater.

In a study of the 10 percent plan released in January, Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, and researchers from other institutions, found that without strong outreach efforts to minorities, Texas’ new policy “will not diversify campuses of selective universities.” What limited success Texas’ percentage plan has shown, she said in an interview, was based partly on the persistent segregation in Texas’ high schools.

Despite being advertised as a nationwide substitute for race-based admissions, she added, the evidence suggests that in other states where the nonwhite population is smaller than in Texas, or is more concentrated geographically, percentage plans could not match affirmative action’s success.

“This cannot work in other places,” Ms. Tienda said.

And a report released in February by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project concluded that the percentage plans in California, Florida, and Texas, despite their appearance of color-blind objectivity, maintain diversity through what amounts to race-conscious recruitment and outreach.

Financial-aid programs like UT’s Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship, which provides money to students at disadvantaged high schools, helped boost minority numbers, the Harvard study found, with the percentage plan doing little on its own.

No Longer ‘Defensive’

But others, like David Montejano, a former UT-Austin professor of Mexican-American studies, say that some of the rewards of the 10 percent plan aren’t reflected in admissions data.

Now on the University of California, Berkeley, faculty, Mr. Montejano and other Texas university officials and lawmakers helped write Texas’ percentage plan. The percentage model helped change how Texas minority students view higher education and their rightful place in it, he said.

“You’d talk to [minority students] and they’d be defensive about why they were there, about affirmative action,” Mr. Montejano said of the pre- Hopwood era. “I don’t hear it anymore.”

The 10 percent plan restored meaning to class rank, he contends, at a time when students are consumed with college-admissions test scores. And, he says, it has also helped wean public universities like UT-Austin from the habit of recruiting students from a relatively small network of high schools, year after year—though much improvement is needed.

Despite seeing some evidence of the 10 percent plan’s success, Mr. Montejano joined several of the original authors of the Texas policy in filing a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, arguing that percentage models are “not effective alternatives” to race-based admissions.

Since Hopwood, both UT-Austin and Texas A&M officials say they have stepped up recruitment efforts and scholarship programs at traditionally underrepresented high schools. The number of in-state high schools sending students to UT-Austin rose by 27.3 percent from 1996 to 2000, according to a report completed by Mr. Montejano in 2001.

Still, as recently as 2000, a relatively small number of Texas high schools contributed nearly half the entering class at Austin, his report found. “Talk about a skewed population,” Mr. Montejanoin said. “We’re talking about a major problem of access here, not just for minorities.”

The dynamics of admissions at some of Texas’ more elite high schools also have shifted under the percentage plan, students and counselors say. Getting into the top 10 percent at Houston’s Memorial High School requires an academic record of almost unflinching perfection.

The school’s campus, set on the west side of the city in a neighborhood framed by oaks and crape myrtle, provides a fitting backdrop for high ambitions. Many of the buildings and grounds at Memorial are 40 years old, but look near-new. Toyota 4Runners and Ford F-250s fill the parking lot. The school’s library is two stories high.

In a typical year, roughly 85 percent of its seniors head to four-year colleges, with Texas A&M and UT- Austin among the most popular. But getting in to the Austin and College Station campuses isn’t a sure thing. At Memorial, many students keep up straight-A averages and yet never climb higher than the top 25 percent, even with schedules loaded with Advanced Placement courses.

Senior Curtis Cox’s top choice is UT-Austin, and by almost any standard, he should be a strong candidate. He carries a 6.0 GPA on a 6.67 scale, which amounts to maintaining an A average while taking several AP courses throughout high school. Even so, he ranks only in the top 25 percent.

“It started bothering me a lot more sophomore and junior year, and I started feeling pressure to get my rank up,” Mr. Cox said. “But actually my GPA, or my class rank, never moved.”

Wendy Andreen, a lead counselor at Memorial High, has seen students request transfers to other, less competitive schools in the Houston area, hoping to improve their class rank, though she discourages such moves. But she also cautions incoming students thinking of transferring to Memorial that their class rankings could plummet upon arrival at the ultra-competitive school.

One such newcomer was Rusty Loyferman, a senior who moved to Houston from Tulsa, Okla., in his sophomore year. Mr. Loyferman first heard about the 10 percent plan from his parent’s real estate agent, who warned him about his new school’s high standards.

He soon found out on his own. Mr. Loyferman was near the top of his class in Tulsa, but he dropped upon entering Memorial, partly, a counselor says, because he hadn’t taken enough honors classes at his old high school. Now he’s No. 74 out of 442, just outside the top 15 percent.

He’s already been accepted at Texas A&M’s business school. But UT- Austin is his top choice, and he hasn’t heard from it yet.

To him, there was a trade-off in coming to Memorial High: It’s a great education, but hard on your GPA. “That’s why my parents chose this area—they’d heard a lot of good things about Memorial,” Mr. Loyferman said. “We could have moved anywhere in Houston.”

‘Patently False’

But other observers of the 10 percent plan, such as Ms. Tienda, say anecdotes from elite schools about students’ being shut out of the state’s top universities are overblown.

Her recent Princeton study found that seniors who graduated in the top 20 percent from the top “feeder” high schools in Texas—those that traditionally send the most students to UT-Austin—had even better odds of getting into that campus under the 10 percent plan than during the time of affirmative action. The image of top-school seniors getting denied admission in large numbers, she said, is “patently false.”

Kedra Ishop, who directs UT-Austin’s recruitment efforts in Houston from an office south of downtown, agrees that some of the frustration she hears from students and parents about the percentage system is misdirected. Getting accepted to the Austin campus is tougher now in part because the annual tide of applications has risen—regardless of the admissions policy.

“I hear from mothers whose first son had a 3.3 GPA, years ago, and got accepted, and whose second son had a 4.2 GPA, and didn’t get in,” Ms. Ishop said. “The first thing that gets blamed, oftentimes, is the top 10 percent plan, and that’s not necessarily the case.”

At the same time, in trying to lure minority students, UT-Austin faces greater competition from out- of-state schools, she says, such as the University of Oklahoma, and private colleges, particularly historically black colleges and universities.

Indeed, not everyone who applies to Austin is sold on the school immediately. In particular, encouraging black applicants to attend sometimes requires having to overcome stereotypes, Ms. Ishop says: that there’s no social life for them at UT; that Austin is unwelcoming to African-Americans; that the three-hour drive is too far from Houston.

“If we hadn’t worked hard in going out to the high schools and recruiting students, it’s not going to be as effective,” Ms. Ishop said. “It’s not about saying ‘You can come.’ It’s about showing students why this school is a good place for them.”


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