`10 percenters' restore diversity at non-affirmative-action U of Texas

Accommodations made for struggling freshmen from small, rural schools

November 24, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

AUSTIN, Texas -- The demise of affirmative action got Daniel Garza, the son of an immigrant construction worker, into one of the best public universities in the nation.

Garza's good grades in a small Hispanic town at the tip of Texas, combined with his low standardized test scores, probably would not have met the threshold for admission to the increasingly competitive University of Texas.

After an appeals court threw out the university's admission system favoring minorities in 1996, Garza's chances seemed even more remote.

But thanks to a new state law guaranteeing the top 10 percent of graduates from every Texas high school a spot at the public university of their choice, Garza, 18, is now suffering through calculus and chemistry as a freshman here at the state's flagship institution.

He is a bit player in Texas' bold experiment, which has already been imitated by California and Florida and is being closely watched by universities nationwide as they agonize over how to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the face of mounting challenges to affirmative action.

Two years into the startlingly simple top 10 percent program, the racial mix on this campus has been restored to what it was under affirmative action.

The university also has been able to attract students such as Garza from impoverished rural and inner-city schools that rarely sent graduates here.

Ironically, the program's success in attracting those minority students depends in part on the continuing segregation of the state's high schools; it has also helped rural white students who, historically, had been hard to reach.

"It does allow us to do a better job, a much better job, actually, of serving all of the state's communities," said Larry R. Faulkner, the university president.

"If we can achieve ways of building representative student bodies without the use of race explicitly, we're healthier."

Even the strongest opponents of racial preferences -- both on campus and around the country -- have little criticism of the top 10 percent rule.

Some of affirmative action's ardent advocates favor the current program because it eliminates suspicion that students might have been admitted solely on the basis of race.

Gov. George W. Bush backed the program and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, also a Republican, has proposed automatic admission for the top 20 percent of graduates in his state.

In California, where affirmative action was outlawed by a statewide vote, Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, has promised slots at the University of California -- though not any particular campus -- to each high school's top 4 percent.

Since top 10 percenters are admitted without regard to their scores on standardized tests -- which all applicants must take -- the Texas system might help answer the long-debated question of whether grades or tests are better predictors of college performance.

"They may not have the academic preparation, they may not have four years of math," acknowledged Arthur Allert, assistant dean for undergraduates at the college of business. "But when they come in, they have that go-getter attitude.

"Four years of performance in high school over four hours of performance on a test -- you get something different. You get someone who thinks of themselves as being at the top of their class."

To address academic deficiencies, administrators across the university are scrambling to create special programs of small classes and extra counselors.

One, the Partnership for Excellence in the Natural Sciences, or PENS, gives 50 pre-medical students whose SAT scores are typically 200 points below the university average their own sections of calculus, chemistry and biology, plus a study-skills seminar and peer mentors.

"These kids, without intervention, only one in 10 of them will go on to get a degree and make it into the health professions," said David Laude, the director of PENS and the undergraduate dean for natural sciences.

"If I see even a hint of a student having a problem, if somebody does badly on a quiz, I call them into my office."

Nowhere has there been a bigger turnaround than in the underprivileged schools where few graduates in the past ever went on to attend the University of Texas.

Now, when university administrators visit, they can guarantee admission to 10 percent of the seniors in the room.

The most profound impact of the program, of course, is on the top 10 percenters themselves, students like Garza, who is the first in his extended family to attend college.

Ranked No. 52 in his high school class of 850, Garza is hoping to major in engineering, but is teetering on the brink of failure in two required courses.

Even his roommate, Emilio Alvarez, who was the valedictorian back in Lajoya, the town of 3,567 where both grew up, is struggling.

"All the stuff I should have done in high school, I'm doing now," said Alvarez, who found his year of high school calculus covered in three weeks.

"A lot of the other kids, they know stuff already. It's a humbling experience. I never felt slow or dumb before."

When Garza got a 68 on a test recently, he was afraid to call home.

In Lajoya, a tight-knit community where the few who pursue higher education typically stay nearby, the young men get teased when they wear their University of Texas Longhorn caps and shirts.

"Back where we're from, we were always ranked real high, we were always in honors," Garza explained.

"You still feel a lot of pressure. That you can't fail."

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