Texas Vote Curbs A College Admission Guarantee Meant To Bolster Diversity

The Texas Legislature voted Saturday night to scale back a program under which Texans who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high schools were given automatic admission to the state university of their choice. The action put limits on a 10-year-old experiment to increase diversity in the colleges.

The University of Texas, Austin, a top-ranked institution, had sought changes to the program for years because it allowed admissions officials almost no latitude in putting together a class and endangered some important but less popular departments, like music. Last fall, 81 percent of the members of the incoming class were admitted under the 10 percent rule.

Suburban parents with students at schools with rigorous standards also complained that the law discriminated against their children, since it was harder to make the cut at such schools than at smaller, rural and some urban schools.

For six years, however, an odd coalition of lawmakers from the inner cities and rural towns had beaten back efforts to weaken the program, arguing that it had ensured more of their students a chance at a first-rate education. They also pointed out that minorities and rural students had increased in number at the flagship university in Austin.

That coalition finally cracked this year under pressure from suburban factions in the Legislature and after heavy lobbying by university officials, who vowed to recruit minorities aggressively.

The law given final approval by the Senate on Saturday caps the number of students let in under the rule at three-quarters of the class, giving university officials discretion over the makeup of the last quarter. Sponsors of the bill had wanted a lower cap -- 50 percent -- but their colleagues in the House would go no lower.

Supporters said it was not a moment too soon. The state has only three top-rated universities -- the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Rice University -- and it had been projected that the entire incoming class at the Austin campus would be made up of top-10-percent students by 2013.

"Texas doesn't have that many national Tier 1 universities, and we were about to overwhelm our major Tier 1 university with automatic admissions," said Representative Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican who leads the Higher Education Committee. "This was a critical moment."

The law was adopted a decade ago after a federal appeals court ruled that affirmative action was illegal in Texas college admissions. The formula took advantage of the fact that the state's schools were so divided by race that a top 10 percent threshold would assure admission to many graduates of predominantly Hispanic and black high schools who once might have been overlooked, as well as rural schools.

Even though in 2003 a United States Supreme Court ruling allowed colleges to take race into account as one of several factors in making admission decisions, the Texas law remained on the books. It had become regarded as something of an entitlement among some lawmakers from rural and urban areas.

Representative Jim McReynolds, a Democrat from Lufkin, who leads the rural House contingent, said that at least 20 teenagers from his district got into the University of Texas, Austin, last year as a result of the rule, and that any change would reduce the number.

"It's just worked so damned well in Texas," Mr. McReynolds said. "I'm reluctant to change it."

Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, also fought the change, saying a better solution would be to create more top-flight universities. New York, for instance, has seven Tier 1 universities. The bill, Mr. Ellis said, was a victory for suburban students.

"The very people who make the most noise about this are the parents of kids who have had all the advantages in life," he said. "They are the same people who don't give a tinker's damn about the people in the quote other schools unquote."

But Senator Florence Shapiro, a Republican from Plano who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said students from good suburban high schools had a legitimate complaint. Only class rank is taken into account, not extracurricular activities or other talents. Many students have been attending colleges out of state.

"The pressure for this bill," Ms. Shapiro said, "really comes from the suburban counties where the youngsters do really well and many times are in the top 13 percent and cannot go to the university. They really go all over the country when they don't have opportunity here."

Since 1999, the number of white students in the undergraduate class at the Austin campus has dropped by 3,500, while the number of minorities has risen by 3,800, according to statistics provided by the university. The undergraduate population has remained about 37,000.

Many students who in the past might have attended the university are now seeking education outside of the state, lawmakers contended. Texas exports about 10,000 students a year, even as more people are moving to the state, and some Texans have raised alarms about a brain drain.

Bill Powers, the president of the University of Texas, Austin, said that, left untouched, the previous law would have forced the university, in the long run, to accept more students than it had the capacity to teach. What is more, the automatically admitted students tended to opt for popular majors, and it had become a struggle to find talented students for programs like architecture, engineering, music, art and geosciences, he said.

While still restrictive, Mr. Powers said, the new law would give admissions officers more flexibility to reach down into high school classes for students who may be brilliant in some regards, like in music, but not in the top 10 percent.

"Judging people on one criterion is not the way to do admissions policy," he said. "No one else in the country does it."