Do automatic admissions rules hurt university prestige?

UT system chancellor says strategy fails to increase diversity, hurts admissions process

University of Texas (UT) system Chancellor Bill McRaven wants the state to stop granting automatic admission to the top 10% of high school grads, Matthew Watkins reports for the Texas Tribune.

Speaking before the Texas House Higher Education Committee and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board this week, McRaven asserted that the rule was not working and that it hurts the national rankings of the flagship campus in Austin. 

What's in a ranking?

When the state outlawed affirmative action in 1998, it implemented a rule that all Texas public universities must accept any Texas student who graduates in the top 10% of his or her public high school. The idea was that although high schools in the state are relatively segregated, taking top students from each would create racial diversity.

Guaranteed admissions programs are also used in other states, such as California and Florida. The programs have gained attention recently as potential alternatives to affirmative action for building a diverse incoming class.

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At UT-Austin, black student enrollment levels have remained relatively steady since 1998. Meanwhile, Hispanic enrollment grew from 14% to 22%, but that could simply be the result of significant growth in the state's Hispanic population over that time period.

Every year, 75% of UT-Austin's freshmen enter through the 10% automatic enrollment. Because the school is so popular, this year students had to be in the top 7% of their class to earn guaranteed acceptance. Ten percent remains the norm for all other campuses.

While UT-Austin is the top public school in the state, it ranks 52nd nationwide according to U.S. News & World Report. McRaven contends that the automatic enrollment rule keeps the school from rising in the rankings by limiting UT-Austin officials' abilities to "pick its own student body." He also says it's not clear whether the rule successfully makes the university more diverse.

McRaven reopens longstanding debate

Legislators from suburban districts have long disliked the automatic admissions policy, citing the difficulty of defining the top 10% at competitive high schools. But many legislators, particularly from minority communities, remain committed to the program.

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas) told McRaven during the hearing that the program's value has been "discussed at length" and that "we have put it to rest for a while."

But McRaven replied that as a new chancellor he needs to reopen the debate, because "my charge is to make us the very best, and I think there are some obstacles to doing that" (Watkins, Texas Tribune, 1/21; Educational Testing Service release, 1/26).

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