Is The 'Top 10' Plan Unfair?

Debate Over Texas Law That Grants Preference To Certain Students

What does it take to get into a top public university? Near-perfect grades? A great application essay? Artistic or athletic ability?

In much of America, it takes all of those things. But for high school students in Texas, there's only one accomplishment that really matters: finishing in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. If they do that, they're guaranteed admission to any public university in the state.

The Texas legislature passed the "Top 10" law eight years ago in an effort to promote ethnic diversity. How well has it worked? As Correspondent Lesley Stahl reported last year, it appears to have worked too well at the University of Texas in Austin.

Call Laura Torres the top 10 percent plan's "poster child." She's smart, Hispanic, and poor. Her family lives in public housing in San Antonio.

"If they didn't have the top 10 percent at my school, I wouldn't have even thought about applying to U.T.," says Torres, who first learned of the program from her high school guidance counselor.

"She said, 'Keep up your grades and stay in the top 10 percent and you can go to any university you want in Texas.' I was thinking, 'Wow. So I can even go to one of the rich universities? One of the really nice ones? Like U.T.?' "

Torres, a sophomore, is one of thousands of "Top 10" students admitted since the law was passed in 1997. According to State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, it all happened because of a federal court decision outlawing affirmative action.

"Legally, the Hopwood case here in Texas said you may not use race as a factor in admissions," says Wentworth. "The legislature responded by saying, 'Okay. If we can't use race, we're gonna say everybody in the top 10 percent. And that'll sweep up some African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as whites'. ... And it did."

It did because so many schools are essentially segregated. For example, Torres' high school is almost entirely Hispanic. So most of its top 10 percent are Hispanic.

Larry Faulkner, president of the University of Texas, says, "We have gone beyond where we were when affirmative action had its last year here." And, he says, that's precisely what they wanted to do.

Still, most of the kids entering under the Top 10 plan are white, because the guarantee applies to every high school in Texas.

But if every student entitled to come to the University of Texas actually came, would the university be able to handle it? "No, we couldn't come close to handling it," says Faulkner. "And in fact, that's where we are now."

Where they are right now is almost out of control: forced to accept more and more "Top 10" percenters. This year, they made up two-thirds of the freshman class.

Faulkner, who long supported the law, now wants it revised to cap the number of top 10 percenters at no more than half of any incoming class.

But Sen. Wentworth is leading a drive to repeal the law entirely, and he has support from many voters who think their kids are now being shut out of the system.

"The current situation in Texas is that you can have a young man who is an Eagle Scout, who's president of his student council and captain of his football team. But because he's in the top 12 percent, he's not automatically admitted," says Wentworth. "But somebody else who's in the top 10 percent, who didn't even take the recommended curriculum for college work, who took the minimum curriculum, automatically goes to the University of Texas at Austin -- and that's not fair."

Not fair is exactly how Elizabeth Aicklen describes her experience with the "Top 10" plan.

"Everyone in my family has gone to U.T. I've lived in Austin for my whole life. I love it," says Aicklen, who took a lot of advanced placement classes to improve her class rank.

Elizabeth's problem, if you can call it that, was that she went to Westlake, the most competitive public high school in Austin, filled with overachievers from upscale families.

Did kids talk about their ranking all the time? Were they thinking of it constantly? "All the time," says Aicklen. "After every test or every final, people were pulling out their calculators."

Aicklen had a 3.9 GPA, and she still didn't make the top 10 at her school.

But 80 miles away in San Antonio, Torres' high school, Fox Tech, was vastly different. There were fewer challenging courses, less competition, and many kids from poor families. Torres had a 3.4-3.5 GPA, which put her in the top 10 percent of her high school. She didn't take any advanced placement classes.

If Torres had gone to Westlake, she'd barely have made the top 50 percent. And if Aicklen had gone to Fox Tech, she might have been the valedictorian. As for SAT scores, Aicklen also scored hundreds of points higher than Torres.

"My scores didn't matter. It was just - I was in the top 10 percent, so I was admitted automatically," says Torres.

"I've had e-mails and letters and phone calls from people who literally have changed schools because their kid was in too competitive a high school, and knew they couldn't graduate in the top 10 percent," says Wentworth.

"So they've moved to a less competitive and less challenging high school so their kid could graduate in the top 10 percent."