A Texas Senate committee voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would substantially weaken the controversial Top 10 Percent Rule — a 20-year-old policy that promises automatic admission into any state university for students who graduate near the top of their high school's class.

Under the new plan, students who finished in the top 10 percent their high school classes would still be promised a spot in some state universities. But schools would be allowed to cap their automatic enrollees at 30 percent of their incoming students. That means many top 10 percenters could be rejected by the state's top two public colleges — the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. Most of the other state schools don't attract enough automatic admissions to be affected by the law.

UT-Austin would see the biggest change. It is currently allowed to cap its automatic enrollees at three-fourths of its incoming classes. That cap has already made it harder to get in automatically — now students have to be in the top 7 percent. If the automatic admissions cap is lowered to less than one-third, students would probably have to do much better than 7 percent. 

The change is still a long way from becoming law. The Senate Higher Education Committee approved the idea 4-2 Wednesday, but the full Senate and House would still need to sign off. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has already indicated that he’d like to see the rule revised or eliminated. 

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The committee’s proposal is laid out in Senate Bill 2119 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who originally proposed eliminating the rule altogether. He said his goal is to give universities more freedom in their admissions decisions. UT-Austin leaders have long complained that the Top 10 Percent Rule doesn’t give them enough leeway in selecting students for its freshman classes. 

“This is about the Legislature not running college admissions in the state of Texas,” Seliger said.

The Top 10 Percent Rule was originally written to increase diversity in the state’s top universities. The idea is that high schools across the state are largely segregated by race and class. Poor students, many of whom are minorities or come from rural areas, lack the resources of students at rich suburban schools. Those poor students often perform worse on the SAT and have fewer college offers. In theory, accepting the best students from all schools levels the playing field.

“The Latino community still feels strongly that the Top 10 Percent Rule is a merit-based way to achieve diversity,” said Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, who voted against SB 2119 on Wednesday.

Students of wealthier schools often dislike the rule, however, saying it makes it harder for them to get into schools that they otherwise might have been able to attend. 

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Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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