The Cream of Every Crop

The Top Ten Percent Plan comes of age: It?s not a cure-all, but it?s pretty damn good.


Michael May

The top ten percent plan, a policy that promotes diversity at Texas state universities by admitting the top of each graduating high school class, is like a unicycle: It may have been simple to design, but it’s very difficult to ride. The plan continues to roll forward, succeeding in bringing diverse groups of students to the state’s flagship schools, but its implementation remains a balancing act, and its effects on the education system are still debated.

The debate is quickly spreading beyond the Texas border, as California and Florida implement percent plans of their own, and critics of affirmative action nationwide begin to tout percent plans as the race-neutral admissions criteria of the future. Within Texas, meanwhile, educators have learned that for a percent plan to succeed, it must be bolstered by a complex of initiatives to address recruitment and funding.

Earlier this spring at Travis High School, a working-class, largely Latino school in Austin, the top ten percent seniors seemed blissfully unaware of the controversies surrounding the policy. Of this year’s 31 top ten percenters at Travis High, most are Latino, most received free or reduced lunch and many are in the first generation of their family to go to college.

One of those students is Erica Gonzales, who grinned about her plan to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in the fall. She is the first person in her family going to college: “That’s why it was so important that I go,” she said. Dolores Escamilla will also be attending UT, joining her sister, who was in the top ten percent of her class. Knowing she had a future at college, Escamilla said, inspired her to take classes that challenged her. Laura Benitez said the plan helped make college seem like a real possibility, even though she had no family members to help her through the bewildering application process. “It felt like there was this huge space between high school and college. I wasn’t sure what steps I needed to follow to get there,” she said. “But with the top ten percent plan I realized I just had to come to class, study hard for tests and stuff, and not fall behind.”

For young Latinos at Travis High, the top ten percent plan is about being rewarded for working hard, not about righting a history of discrimination. But State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who sponsored percent-plan legislation, vividly remembers when UT was virtually all white. “A lot of people who don’t go through it don’t know how hard it is,” he says. “I was born here. I went to segregated schools, and I didn’t want anyone to have to go through that again.”

When the 1996 Hopwood decision barred state-supported schools in Texas from using affirmative action in college admissions, recruitment and scholarships, veterans of the civil rights movement were dismayed. But even with affirmative action, UT, the flagship school most affected by the decision, had never come close to living up to its motto “We’re Texas.” The school remained virtually all white into the 1970s, and Latino and African American enrollment had peaked under affirmative action at 12.7% and 4% respectively, in a state where these groups make up 32 and 11.5% of the total population and an even higher proportion of its high school students.

In response to Hopwood, a UT academic team, led by Professor David Montejano, designed the percent plan and took it to Representative Irma Rangel and Barrientos, who introduced legislation in the state House and Senate. The plan relied on the wide residential segregation in Texas, which guarantees that a sizable percentage of top ten percent students are minorities. And unlike the percent plans in California and Florida, the Texas policy ensures admission to any college in the state system, even those with stringent SAT requirements that students from low-performing high schools often fail to meet. Gerald Torres, law professor at UT and another of the designers of the plan, explains the value of this critical detail. “Your chance of participating in the next generation of leadership in Texas is much greater if you graduate from UT,” he says. “So it’s not just getting kids into college, it’s getting them into the institution that connects them to power.”

In fact, this isn’t the first time the school has admitted students solely on the basis of class rank. As part of an effort to streamline the admissions process, UT automatically admitted top ten percenters, regardless of SAT scores, from 1989 to 1994. (A reevaluation in 1994 resulted in the addition of a minimum SAT score, which was dropped when the current plan went into effect in 1998.) But the earlier plan, designed simply to downsize bureaucracy, had little effect on diversity. This time, the plan includes active recruitment of top ten percent students from low income areas. “What we learned was making students eligible to attend UT is not enough,” says Dr. Bruce Walker, director of admissions at UT. “We have to enable them to attend.”

What the percent plan cannot do on its own is to change the socially embedded way that students decide what college to attend. Not surprisingly, teenagers base their decision about where to attend college largely on where their friends and family have gone, and where they feel likely to succeed. Jerry Jarmon, the associate principal at Travis High, says that many of their students wouldn’t choose UT, even if they were admitted. “It can be very impersonal, very threatening,” says Jarmon. “They are going to schools where they have a family history.”

In 1996, the year before the passage of the percent plan, only 600 out of 1,500 high schools sent any students to UT. A small group of 64 elite, suburban high schools provided half of the freshman class. Hoping to change these patterns, the admissions office began offering Longhorn Opportunity Scholarships, which target schools that have never sent students to UT. In many schools, competition for the scholarships has created an environment where attending UT is a viable goal, and even those who don’t receive the scholarships apply for financial aid and enroll.

Even those schools not targeted for scholarships are benefiting from outreach programs about the percent plan. A study by Montejano shows that the number of high schools sending students to UT has grown by 27% in the three years the percent plan has been in effect. “The new feeder high schools really represent two clusters,” he explains. “On the one hand are minority inner-city schools. But the other cluster is rural, predominantly white high schools. The rural white high schools are poor, working class schools, and the ten percent plan opens up access to them as well.”

Top ten percent students are succeeding academically, putting to rest concerns raised in the Texas Legislature that eliminating the criterion of a minimum SAT score would result in the admission of students unable to handle UT. On average, top ten percenters are doing as well or better than non-top ten percenters with higher test scores. The average GPA of top ten percenters with SAT scores between 900-990 is 2.79, while approximately the same GPA (2.83) is earned by non-top ten percenters with scores of 1200-1290. And 93% of top ten percenters are returning their sophomore year, compared to 87% of non-top ten percent students.

The plan does have its critics. It doesn’t help minority students at high-performing suburban schools, nor does it help bright students who are not in the top ten percent because of poor grades freshman year, for example, or because they have to work after-school jobs to support their families. Parents of students who are not in the top ten percent at elite high schools complain that the plan gives an advantage to students at low-performing high schools. “In their minds, that’s unfair,” says Dr. Bruce Walker, UT’s Director of Admissions. “My response is that students do not design the public school system in Texas. They did not choose where to live. We should not punish students for that. If, in the competition they were in, they worked hard to get in the top ten percent, they should be rewarded.” Some also have the perception, says Walker, that a student has to be in the top ten percent to be admitted to UT. In fact, students with strong applications who are not in the top ten percent still have a good chance of being admitted.

Another fear is that the plan could end up discouraging integration at the high school level. This is an issue at two Austin schools, LBJ and Johnston, which host magnet programs. Magnet programs, which are disproportionately white and Asian American, were placed in under-enrolled minority high schools in order to encourage voluntary integration. But the percent plan has forced the schools and the state to examine whether the two programs truly constitute one school. When the percent plan passed, administrators realized that having one high school rank would eliminate most, if not all, of the neighborhood kids from the top ten percent. So for the first year the plan was in effect, schools ranked students in magnet programs separately from the rest of the student body. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board objected, because schools were qualifying more than 10% of the entire student body for admission. The schools responded by sending ten percent of the student body, apportioning a representative number of magnet and neighborhood students. Magnet school students from Johnston High School who had lost their ten percent status sued the district in federal court, and won.

Now magnet kids are counted with the rest of the student body. When the court forced LBJ High School to rank all its students together, Norma Hernandez was a student in the top ten percent of the neighborhood school who suddenly lost her automatic admission. “In the last 3 years I was in the top ten percent,” she said. “And suddenly, as soon as I am about to graduate, they tell me I’m not. I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to get into the school I wanted to go to.”

In order to address the needs of students like Hernandez, the school hired Rene Sanchez to help students from the neighborhood program with their college applications. All of LBJ’s top ten percent neighborhood students were accepted into the schools of their choice. Hernandez is enrolling at UT. “Without Rene, I would have procrastinated on my essay,” she says. “But he was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to write your essay.’ So I did it on time, and got accepted.”

Sanchez says the experience proves that the top ten percent plan is not as important as knowing what the university is looking for in a college application. “A lot of students in low-income neighborhoods don’t have family members who went on to college and don’t understand how to write a strong application,” he says.

While the magnet schools have been particularly affected by the percent plan, concerns have been raised regarding the general impact of the percent plan at the high school level. Clearly, many students work hard not only to reach the top ten percent, but to ensure that they are prepared for a rigorous college curriculum. But according to Dolores Escamila, the top ten percenter from Travis High, there are other students who boost their GPA with As in courses like defensive driving. “I have always taken advanced classes, so I am not as high in the class as I would like to be because other students took easier classes,” she says.

These concerns reached the state legislature, prompting a debate over whether to implement course requirements for top ten percent students. Rangel, concerned that such a measure would hurt students in districts that don’t offer a college preparatory curriculum, responded by passing a law mandating that all districts must provide a more advanced minimum curriculum beginning in 2004 (including, among other requirements, geometry, additional science credits and a mandatory foreign language) and that all students take it.

Could this be a first step, however small, toward improving the state’s high schools as a whole? In the end, the percent plan has helped diversify higher education, but its very design points to a more deeply embedded problem–educational inequity at the high school level. The plan offers some hard-working students at low-performing schools an opportunity to attend college, and yet the rest are left as poorly educated as ever.

Michael May is a writer living in Austin.

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