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Author of effort to peel back Top 10 Percent Rule says his bill is dead

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, says he doesn't have enough votes to repeal or peel back the Top 10 Percent Rule for college admissions.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, discussed higher education issues during a Texas Tribune event on April 4, 2017. Seliger is chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. 

Texas' Top 10 Percent Rule for college admissions appears poised to survive another legislative session, according to the author of the leading bill to repeal or peel it back. 

Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said he doesn't have enough Republican support to get Senate Bill 2119 to the Senate floor. That means the issue is likely dead for 2017, he said. 

"There weren't the votes," Seliger said. 

Currently, any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her high school's graduating class receives automatic admission to any public university in the state except the University of Texas at Austin, where the threshold is 7 percent. Seliger initially proposed repealing the rule entirely. He later updated his bill to keep the rule in place, but in a more limited way. Under the latest version of his bill, each school could cap automatic admissions at 30 percent of its incoming freshman class.

That would significantly impact admissions at UT-Austin, where about three-quarters of each freshman class is automatically admitted. Many suburban parents and students from competitive school districts loathe the bill because they say it makes it harder to gain admission into UT-Austin.

Seliger wanted to change the rule because it represented "big government." The universities, not the state, should be in charge of setting admissions standards, he said. But Seliger couldn't get the 19 votes needed to get the item up for consideration on the floor of the 31-member Senate. 

He said the reason the bill wasn't getting the necessary votes "is because of self-professed small government Republicans."

The Top 10 Percent Rule was created in 1997 to increase diversity at state schools. The thinking behind it is that not all high schools are created equal. Schools in poor urban or rural areas tend to have fewer resources than the wealthy suburban schools. The poorer students come from less-educated families and tend to do worse on the SAT. Sometimes they can't afford extracurricular activities. But none of those disadvantages matter under the Top 10 Percent Rule.

UT-Austin, meanwhile, has raised complaints that the rule eliminates its freedom to compile its student body to its choosing and restricts admission to largely one metric — class rank. 

Most Democrats still support the bill. But Seliger said he was dismayed to learn that there were not enough Republicans on board. 

"This is one of the worst examples of big government because we have got the Legislature determining admissions to one university to no real end," he said. 

Seliger said he didn't know of any other avenue to get a change to the rule approved in the Capitol this session. But he said he expects the issue will come up again in the 2019 legislative session. The situation could soon become magnified at Texas A&M University, too, he said. The share of top 10 percent students enrolled at A&M is nearing 60 percent.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Check out "The Price of Admission," our 2016 series on the fight over the Top 10 Percent Rule and the quest to make Texas’ top universities look more like Texas.
  • University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven is facing new questions from his board of regents about spending and staffing levels, which come as he nears the end of his three-year contract.

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

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