plan works 'too well'
Date: June 27, 2004
In our long, hard slog through America's racial confusions, there are
lessons to be found deep in the heart of Texas' current dilemma over
diversity on campus.
A 10 percent solution that Texans devised to replace
race-based admissions policies has worked much better for the
University of Texas than anyone had a right to expect. Unfortunately,
that's the problem.
State senators begin holding committee hearings this month to
investigate possible modifications to the plan they approved after a
federal court outlawed the use of race in the admissions policies of
the state's public universities in 1996.
The law guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of the graduating
class from any and every public or private high school in the state.
Since race tends to follow neighborhood and income patterns, the
result has been an increase in minority enrollment at the state's
premier universities, the University of Texas and Texas A&M
plus a bonus increase in enrollment for rural whites.
For example, the number of schools that feed graduates to the
University of Texas has risen by a third, from just over 600 of the
state's 1,600 high schools to more than 800 since the plan began in
Ah, what a lovely scheme. Small wonder that California and Florida
quickly adopted similar percentage plans of their own and other
states are considering them.
But that's only the good news. Unfortunately, a Texas-sized backlash
has erupted among parents from better-off high school districts who
voice a novel complaint: reverse discrimination against
Parents in more affluent school districts are complaining that their
hard-working, high-performing little Jills and Johnnies are being
penalized for attending academically rigorous high school where it is
much tougher to make the top 10 percent.
Even advocates of the percentage plan say it would be a mistake to
accuse these disgruntled parents of merely trying to hold onto
upper-class privilege. The ten percenters have grown
rapidly from about 40 percent of the freshman admissions to more than
70 percent, squeezing out gifted youths who have better test scores
or special talents like music ability but didn't quite make the top
10 percent of their class.
As we reach deeper into the top 10 percent pool of high school
graduates, we are beginning to see a fairness problem, said
Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law school professor who
helped defend the school's earlier affirmative action policy in front
of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
And even though the program began under former Gov. George W. Bush
and is defended by Education Secretary Rod Paige, another Texan,
current Texas Gov. Rick Perry frets that the plan is unfair and
causing qualified students to leave the state.
A consensus appears to growing for lowering the percentage of
students admitted under the percentage plan, which will raise the
numbers of those who can be accepted based on test scores and other
Yet another challenge is gathering on the horizon: the state's
nonwhite population, especially among Hispanics, is growing at a
faster rate than the geography-based plan can keep up.
So, what is to be done? An important clue may be offered by Texas
A&M, which has announced dramatic increases in all minority groups
this fall, including a huge 57 percent increase for black students,
even though it does not consider race or ethnicity in admissions.
As Texas A&M has figured out, recruitment policies are just as
important as admissions policies in attracting a diverse student
body. As Leacock told me, the percentage plan has made recruitment
easier because it crosses the credibility gap that college
representatives often run into with students who don't believe they
really have a chance to get into the state's top schools.
Our president can go into any high school and say, 'You don't
have to just trust us. It's the law: Your competition is in this
room. Make the top 10 percent and you are guaranteed
That's a powerful sales pitch. Early research indicates that students
admitted under the ten percent plan actually perform better
academically than the overall student average. The percentage plan
works, but a reasonable limit needs to be found to avoid crowding out
highly qualified students who missed the top 10 percent at the most
At the same time, the experience of Texas A&M and other universities
shows how effectively an aggressive recruitment effort can boost the
enrollment of qualified minority students and other underserved
In short, as Texas educators and legislators wrestle with the future
of their percentage plan, they should remember the old Clinton
administration slogan: Mend it, don't end it. Until that day when we
are truly ready to leave no child behind in our public schools, the
percentage plans move in the right direction.
CLARENCE PAGE is a Chicago Tribune columnist.