Top ten shuts out out-of-state students

Eric Nikolaides

The Top Ten Percent Law, which was passed in its original form in 1997, guarantees automatic admission to any state-funded university to all Texas high school students graduating in the top 7-8 percent of their class. It was designed to increase minority enrollment in Texas universities as a “back door” approach to affirmative action — a circuit court ruling in 1996 had banned the overt use of race as a factor in university admissions — but the rule has had an unintended effect at UT: limiting out-of-state enrollment.

Within just a few years, the Top Ten Percent Law began to dominate university admissions; in 2009, 86 percent of the incoming freshman class were applicants granted automatic admission under the law. And as top ten percenters began to comprise more and more of each entering freshman class, there was less and less room for everyone else. The Texas Legislature did enact a cap, for UT-Austin only, during the spring 2009 legislative session that limited top ten percent applicants to 75 percent of the entering class. But that still left shockingly little room for other qualified applicants — Texans outside of the top ten percent and anyone from out of state. Much has been written in this publication and in many others about Texans excluded by the rule, but for now, let’s focus on students — like myself — from outside of Texas.

In these hard economic times, this University has a vested interest in attracting as many out-of-state students as possible. The reason is simple: We pay more in tuition. As the coffers start to run dry and universities begin to do what they can to cut costs — such as privatizing staff and cutting unpopular degree programs — the additional revenue that out-of-state students bring in is invaluable. And it’s obvious that other public universities across the country are hearing this message loud and clear. As the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported, public universities in states like Oregon, Arizona, South Carolina and Louisiana are focusing on attracting out-of-state students for the extra cash flow that nonresident tuition dollars can provide.

Texas is very much unlike those states. But across the nation, many institutions similar to UT in terms of size and influence attract and enroll significantly more out-of-state students. For example, in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is readily available), out-of-state students accounted for 15.7 percent of the entering freshman class at Ohio State University, 36.1 percent at Penn State University and 37.8 percent at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. UT, on the other hand, had an entering freshman class that was just 8.3 percent out-of-state.

But it isn’t just about money. Only by attracting the best and brightest students from around the nation (and not just from Texas, although the pickings are pretty good here) can UT become the elite public university that we all want it to be. Senator Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, echoes this sentiment. “I believe the University has an interest in attracting well-qualified students from all over the place. Diversity of all kinds is important,” he told me. As it stands, UT is lagging far behind its public university rivals in attracting top-quality students from around the nation, and the Top Ten Percent Law is largely to blame. This is something that needs to change.

Seliger, who has opposed the Top Ten Percent Law in the past, was quick to point out that the policy has been successful in increasing minority enrollment. “It has increased diversity to an extent,” he explained, “but not to the extent that would justify dictating 75 to 100 percent of all admissions to the University. And so that’s the subject upon which the debate revolves.” He admitted that many universities would probably not care to see the complete repeal of the policy and that there is a substantial public interest in minority admissions to the University. While this is certainly true, the extent to which Top Ten Percent has prevented UT from dictating its own admissions policies and attracting top students is unacceptable.

Currently, there are plans in both the Texas House and Senate to revise the policy and account for whatever the U.S. Supreme Court might rule in Fisher v. University of Texas this spring, since a decision in Fisher’s favor would, under existing law, dismantle the entire non-top-ten admissions process. When lawmakers take up this issue once again, they should take into account the University’s vested interest in attracting talented out-of-state students as well as in-state ones.

Nikolaides is a Spanish and government senior from Cincinnati, Ohio.