University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven argued in two separate public appearances this week that the state should consider scrapping its top 10 percent automatic admissions rule, saying it hurts the prestige of his flagship university.
His arguments could restart a debate that has divided state leaders for years. The rule is designed to make Texas' top universities more diverse. But in appearances before the Texas House Higher Education Committee on Wednesday and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on Thursday, McRaven questioned whether the rule was working and complained that it is keeping UT-Austin down in national rankings.
"Candidly, right now what is holding us back is the 10 percent rule," McRaven said Thursday.
UT leaders have long complained that the Top 10 Percent Rule created by the Texas Legislature was harming UT-Austin's ability to pick its own student body. The rule requires public universities in the state to automatically accept any Texas student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her public high school's graduating class. In recent years, the law has been tweaked for UT-Austin, which was becoming overwhelmed with top 10 percent students. This year, the university will automatically accept any student in the top 7 percent.
Seventy-five percent of UT-Austin's incoming freshmen are automatic enrollees each year.
"To make sure the right students are coming to the university, that alone will put us in the position to be a more competitive university," McRaven said.
Some state leaders, most notably Gov. Greg Abbott, are pushing to see UT-Austin and other top Texas schools rise into the top 10 public universities in the country. Right now, UT-Austin is the top-ranked public school in the state, but is 52nd among all types of universities nationwide, according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
The rule comes up regularly in the Texas Legislature. It's especially unpopular among lawmakers who represent competitive suburban schools, where it's harder to get into the top 10 percent. But McRaven's recent focus on the law is new, and could thrust the issue back into the forefront.
The law was originally designed to boost minority enrollment in public universities after affirmative action was temporarily banned in the state. The idea is that Texas' high schools are segregated, so giving equal access to the top students at every high school will produce a diverse class.
McRaven said he is skeptical that it's working.
"I would be willing to bet that since we dropped affirmative action in 1998, the racial diversity hasn't improved," he said.
In 1998, UT-Austin's undergraduate population was 65 percent white. In 2015, it was 44 percent white. But the share of black student enrollment has barely budged. Hispanic enrollment has grown from 14 percent to 22 percent, but the state's Hispanic population has grown rapidly during that time, so it's hard to say how much credit the Top 10 Percent Rule deserves.
Still, the rule has strong support among minority legislators, who would fiercely oppose any attempt to get rid of it. After McRaven raised the issue on Wednesday, state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, reminded McRaven of that fact.
"That is a very very sensitive topic," Alonzo said. "It is a topic that we have discussed at length from all different aspects, and I would hope that we have put it to rest for a while."
McRaven, who became chancellor about a year ago, was unconvinced.
"I am a new chancellor, so I am going to take that opportunity to re-open that look again," he said. "Because my charge is to make us the very best, and I think there are some obstacles to doing that."
Alonzo replied: "Well, I accept the challenge, sir."