A series on the fight over the Top 10 Percent Rule and the quest to make Texas’ top universities look more like Texas

Genesis Morales and Grayson Rutherford both had big college dreams. The Top 10 Percent Rule affected them very differently. | Cooper Neill

Part ii

At High Schools Just Miles Apart, a World of Difference in College Paths

DALLAS — One school has a planetarium, indoor tennis courts and a parking garage. At the other, hallways were missing ceiling tiles for the first few months of school.

One offers an SAT course over the summer, and the average student’s score is 1217 out of 1600. At the other, classes share copies of SAT prep books. The average score there is 825.

The two Dallas-area schools — Highland Park High School and Bryan Adams High School — are only 10 miles apart, but they might as well be in different countries. Highland Park is nearly 90 percent white and 0 percent economically disadvantaged, according to state data. Bryan Adams is 5 percent white and 84 percent economically disadvantaged.

Such disparities aren’t unique to Texas; across the United States, racial and economic segregation persists in education. But attending a good college is one of the best ways for poor kids to lift themselves out of poverty. And in Texas, there’s a unique law that tries to give students at schools like Bryan Adams an equal shot at getting there.

Students whose grades place them among the top 10 percent of their senior class — whether at a school like Bryan Adams or Highland Park  — are guaranteed a spot in any public university in the state. (The exception is UT-Austin, where a student usually needs to be in the top 7 percent to make the cut.)

“We want all our students in Texas to have a fair shot at achieving their dreams,” then-Gov. George W. Bush said in 1997, as he signed the Top 10 Percent Rule into law.

But just promising a student a spot in a top university doesn’t promise that he or she will go. Only one student from Bryan Adams enrolled in UT-Austin last fall, compared with 67 from Highland Park.

According to a Texas Tribune analysis of state data, the story is the same statewide. Of nearly 25,000 seniors who attended Texas’ poorest schools, only 313 enrolled in UT-Austin in 2015. Meanwhile, of the same number from the richest schools, 1,421 enrolled. (The analysis excludes private schools and high schools with fewer than 100 seniors.)

And many of the students from the poorest schools didn’t even apply, according to the Tribune’s analysis. Just 3.4 percent of them were accepted to UT-Austin, even with the automatic admissions rule. UT-Austin accepted 10 percent of students from the richest schools.

People across the political spectrum have touted the Top 10 Percent Rule as a simple, brilliant way to diversify colleges. Black and Hispanic lawmakers fiercely defend it as vital to the success of the students in their districts. Meanwhile, a group of conservatives has rallied around it as a “race-neutral” method that could replace affirmative action.

But while the rule helped boost diversity in Texas college campuses during a short-lived ban on affirmative action, the lingering disparity shows that there are no easy fixes.

Eyes on Midwestern State

If there’s one thing Krystal Morrow wishes her Bryan Adams students could have, it would be a set of iPads or computers. She’s seen too many of them apply for college on their smartphones.

“We have some computer labs, but we all have to share them,” said Morrow, who is a volleyball coach and teacher at the East Dallas school. “These kids apply on their freaking phone.”

Morrow runs a program at the school called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), which aims to send students to four-year colleges. And she said the Top 10 Percent Rule is crucial at a school like hers, especially because the rule doesn’t take SAT scores into account. Even her best students consistently score low on the SAT because most of them can’t afford private tutoring and the school doesn’t offer much extra help.

Genesis Morales and teacher Krystal Morrow chat during class at Bryan Adams High School. | Cooper Neill

Many seniors there had no idea the rule existed until they received a slip a paper, toward the end of their junior year, stating that they were in the top 10 percent. Some of them didn’t even know what a grade-point average was until that moment.

But even though the rule would automatically admit dozens of Morrow’s students each year to the most elite public universities in Texas, the schools aren’t on their radars. Most of their parents didn’t attend college, and they have no idea where they’d like to go.

“They call UT-Austin ‘UTA,’” Morrow said. “I keep trying to say, ‘That’s UT-Arlington.’ Then they’ll call it ‘Austin College.’ I’ll go, ‘No, that’s in Sherman.’ They’ll go, ‘Well, Texas University.’ Just the vocabulary, they don’t understand.”

One of the top choices for many of Morrow’s seniors who are in the top 10 percent of their class is Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. The small school also happens to be the one that her students visited last year — and for many of them, it was the first college campus they’d seen.

“Oh my gosh, every school I’ve taken them to, that’s the only one they’re applying to,” said Morrow. “It just kills me.”

Her goal is more about making sure students go to a four-year college instead of community college. That’s where Genesis Morales, a senior who is now No. 8 in her class, thought she was heading when she began her freshman year.

Morales had always taken school seriously and wanted to go to college. She’s president of her student council and secretary of the National Honor Society, and she does a lot of community service. But her parents, who are from Mexico, didn’t graduate high school. Her dad is a landscaper, and her mom is a factory worker. For years, her only impressions of college came from watching television shows.

Genesis Morales works on the computer during class at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas. | Cooper Neill

“It’s people who have money, people who are, like, prodigies and stuff, [who] end up there. For me, I was never surrounded by those people — people who went to college.”

It was Morrow who changed Morales’ mind. But even though Morales would be automatically admitted to UT-Austin, she didn’t apply. In the fall of 2015, she listed her top choice as Texas Woman’s University in Denton — another school that AVID students had visited with Morrow.

The prestige of a school matters to Morales, she said, but not in the way some might think. She’d rather go to a lower-ranked school.

“I feel I’m not going to be as smart. So when it comes to tough schools, I kind of stay away,” she said. “I don’t have the same teachers, and all these extra books that you get.”

Many Bryan Adams seniors at the top of their class were interested in the UT System’s less-selective branch campuses that were in the Dallas area. That’s because most low-income students of color prefer to stay close to home, said Jane Lincove, an assistant professor at Tulane University who studies college access.

In addition to that, at the branch campuses, “there’s more students who look like them, and there’s more students who went to their high schools,” Lincove said of minority students.

Lincove’s research also shows that white students with low SAT scores are more likely to choose elite colleges, compared with students of color with low scores. Even within the same high school, students of different races with similar academic profiles will consistently make different choices along such lines.

Morales pointed to her low SAT score, which is in the 43rd percentile, as a reason she might struggle at a school like UT-Austin. But the data shows she is more likely to succeed there. At the state’s two flagships, UT-Austin and Texas A&M University, 72 percent of Hispanic students graduate within six years, compared with 49 percent at Texas Woman’s. And UT-Austin and A&M graduates earn about $8,000 more per year, on average, 10 years after graduation.

“I wish they had a little bit more guts, a little bit more, because they could succeed at a place” like UT-Austin, Morrow said of her students. “But I think they’ll be awesome no matter where they go. I’m just happy that they’re going. I hate to say that.”

Eyes on the Ivy League

At Highland Park, school counselors don’t spend much time persuading students to attend a four-year university. Instead, they try to find each student’s perfect higher education match.

That conversation starts before the student even gets to the high school. In the last semester of eighth grade, students meet with counselors to start mapping out goals. The school also offers an SAT and ACT prep course during the summer, while some parents also pay thousands of dollars to hire private college admissions consultants.

Meanwhile, there is a waitlist for colleges that want to send representatives to Highland Park’s annual college fair. More than 200 schools already participate.

To be in the top 10 Percent of Highland Park’s senior class means having a grade-point average of above a 4.0. That means students can’t just score perfectly in regular courses; they have to take college-level courses and do well, too.

“You can’t just make all A’s and be in the top 10 percent here,” Principal Walter Kelly said. “Interesting thought, isn’t it?”

The difference in attitude toward class rank at the two high schools is astounding. At Bryan Adams, learning that number was about learning of a ticket to college, or about being further motivated in school. At Highland Park, all the students are so competitive and high-performing that “we eliminated class rank except for our legal requirement to report the top 10 percent,” Kelly said. Many other schools like his across the state have also done so.

What that means, Kelly said, is that many students outside the top 10 percent would succeed at either UT-Austin or A&M. And they want to go.

Some have parents or grandparents who attended UT-Austin. Some don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, so the cost difference between attending a private college and an in-state public university can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. More than 150 Highland Park students apply to UT-Austin each year.

Those outside the top 10 percent have to sweat out the application process. And the number of slots for them is much lower because of the Top 10 Percent Rule, making the policy enormously controversial in the wealthiest, most competitive high schools across the state.

Grayson Rutherford, a senior at Highland Park, learned about the rule in her government class and said she agrees with it. “I still think that minorities definitely should have programs set up and ways of including them into schools that typically just take white, privileged kids. I definitely think that’s fair.”

Still, Highland Park administrators and students know cases of students who got into Stanford and Vanderbilt but not UT-Austin.

Rutherford plays varsity softball and founded the school’s Model United Nations and Young Democrats clubs. She also runs her own business, selling custom-made shorts and flannel shirts on the website Etsy. Her GPA is 4.15, and she scored a 32 on the ACT, which placed her in the 98th percentile. But she is outside the top 10 percent of her class.

So with no guarantees, she applied to more than 10 schools, including the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California; UT-Austin; Tulane University; Purdue University; the University of Michigan; Emory University; Boston College; and the University of Pennsylvania. She also applied to her dad’s alma mater, Harvard College, and Vanderbilt.

As she waited to hear back from colleges, she began to worry that she’d be rejected from them all.

“I just got really freaked out,” she said. So she applied to two more: the University of Arizona and Northeastern University.

Grayson Rutherford, a senior at Highland Park High School, applied to about a dozen colleges. | Cooper Neill

But it turned out Rutherford had nothing to worry about. That’s because UT-Austin has always wanted to admit more students with qualifications like hers. Every year since the Top 10 Percent Rule became law, dozens of students from schools such as Highland Park have gotten into and enrolled at UT-Austin, compared with only a handful from schools such as Bryan Adams.

In 2009, lawmakers created more room at the school for those outside the top 10. By that time, students automatically accepted through the Top 10 Percent Rule made up 86 percent of UT-Austin’s freshman class. So the Legislature allowed UT-Austin to cap the number of students who could be admitted under the rule. Only three-fourths of the freshman class would get in automatically, based on their class rank.

Last year, anyone who graduated in the top 7 percent got in automatically; the rest went through a “holistic” review that considered SAT scores, extracurricular activities and other factors.

Race is one of those factors, but the holistic review still overwhelmingly favors white and Asian students, especially those from competitive schools. That’s no surprise because they tend to fare better on the SAT.

In 2015, black and Hispanic high school graduates made up 40 percent of the students admitted into UT-Austin automatically. They made up 18 percent of the students admitted through the holistic process.

At Bryan Adams, where many students haven’t heard of SAT prep courses, let alone taken one, Morrow tells her students to be realistic about UT-Austin if they are outside the top 7 percent. It’s unlikely they’ll get in, she said.

Only 15 students from Bryan Adams were accepted to the school last year, which means some who would have been automatically admitted didn’t apply. Last year, 110 Highland Park students were accepted into UT-Austin, meaning dozens from outside the top 7 percent got in.

Rutherford became one of those students in November, when she was accepted weeks before the application deadline.

“I was so relieved,” she said. “Once I got into UT, I was OK. I knew I could go there and everything would be fine.”

By February, UT-Austin was at the top of her list. She said she was intrigued by its urban setting and strong business school. Then, in the first week in March, she was offered admission and a full scholarship to one of her favorites, Vanderbilt.

“So now I am about 95 percent sure that I am going to be heading to Nashville this fall,” she said in March.

Affirmative Action Alternative

The Top 10 Percent Rule looms heavily over Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, one of the most closely watched cases before the Supreme Court this term. Fisher, whose undergraduate application to UT-Austin was rejected in 2008, claims the school discriminated against her because she is white.

Her lawyers say that UT-Austin shouldn’t be allowed to consider race in admissions because it can use the Top 10 Percent Rule as a “race-neutral” alternative.

Still, many researchers agree that the rule is not as effective as affirmative action when it comes to minority enrollment at elite college campuses across the country.

“It’s not a complete replacement. You can’t rely on it by itself,” said Mark Long, a University of Washington professor who has studied the effects of automatic admissions policies such as the Top 10 Percent Rule in Texas and other states. “Can you pool it together with a number of other strategies? Well, in my research, I haven’t seen any colleges that have completely rebounded, so that makes me skeptical.”

On the other hand, if colleges are forced to eliminate affirmative action, Texas’ plan seems to be the best at boosting diversity in an equitable way, Long and others say. Eleven other states — eight of which have an affirmative action ban in place — have some type of automatic admission policy for their flagships, but Texas’ rule is the only one that focuses solely on grades. Other states look at factors such as SAT scores, which tend to be far higher for white and Asian students, but aren’t good indicators of college performance, researchers say.

Yet Morales’ low SAT score held her back from applying to UT-Austin and from attending Texas A&M, even though a visit to the College Station campus left her beaming.

“The first thing I thought was, if I was watching a movie and they said, ‘I’m going off to college,’ that's the first thing I picture in my head,” Morales remembered.  “It was really beautiful, it was so big ... there was always someone sitting at the fountain or someone at the library. I felt everything was perfect there.”

She knew she could go there if she wanted, with a top 10 class ranking and ample opportunities for financial aid. But she still wasn’t sure whether she belonged at a place like A&M.

“At A&M, people come from not just Texas, but everywhere, to go to that school,” Morales pointed out. “I just felt like I wasn’t going to have the same academic background.”

In the end, she narrowed her list to A&M and Texas Woman’s, a smaller, less-prestigious university. As she mulled her decision, she asked Morrow for advice. Morrow responded with a question: Do you want to feel independent?

Morales had long thought the answer was “yes.” She loved her parents but also wanted freedom. They are devoutly religious, and she worried that if she stayed close to home they’d make her attend church with them every weekend.

But as she was making up her mind, her father fell ill. Her family doesn’t have insurance, so they delayed treatment. Doctors said he was on his way to becoming diabetic. Her parents told her she was an adult now; they wouldn’t force her to go to church. Leaving home seemed less appealing.

“I just want him to be safe ... and [at A&M], I am going to be three hours away,” she said.

Ultimately, the decision came down to comfort. Texas Woman’s, with an acceptance rate of 85 percent, with 44 percent of its students black or Hispanic, seemed like a better fit. She just couldn’t see herself at A&M.

“I kind of felt like I wasn’t smart enough for them,” she said.

This story is a collaboration between The Texas Tribune and Reveal, a public radio show and podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

To republish this story for free, click here or email editors@texastribune.org.

Project Contributors