Imperfect 10

Your kid may be smart, but if she isn't in the top tenth of her class, she may not get into UT or A&M. Don't despair. Try Harvard.

Twelve years ago Fort Worth attorney William D. Ratliff scouted the local schools to find the best environment for his son, who was starting kindergarten. He settled on Trinity Valley School, a private school renowned for its rigorous curriculum and small class sizes. It was the natural choice for a father determined to provide the best education for his son.Last year Ratliff removed his son from Trinity Valley and enrolled him for his senior year in Arlington Heights, the public high school for Ratliff’s southwest Tarrant County neighborhood. Why the upheaval? Because Trinity Valley doesn’t rank the 87 students in its graduating class, his son couldn’t be in the top 10 percent. But at Arlington Heights, the younger Ratliff’s grade point average will easily earn him a spot in the top 10 percent&and the precious entitlement that comes with a high class ranking.

Blame it on a 1997 state law that awards high school seniors in the top 10 percent of their class automatic admission to public colleges and universities, including the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Adopted after the federal courts banned UT’s affirmative action procedures in the now famous Hopwood lawsuit, the law sought an alternative method of raising the number of minority and lower socioeconomic students accepted to the state’s flagship institutions.

But it also has raised the stakes for all Texas college-bound high school students. For every top 10 percent student with mediocre SAT scores who now gets in, another student with high test scores but mediocre grades (who would previously have been admitted) gets left out. While the top 10 percent law accounts for only a little less than half of the freshman class of 2000 at UT and a similar number at A&M, in some majors& like business& all the slots in the freshman class were filled by top-10-ranked kids taking advantage of the new law. Making the competition even more intense is a record number of Texas kids applying to college. Just last year UT was deluged with a 15 percent increase in applications& enough to force university regents to cancel the school’s wide-open provisional summer admissions program, in which any entering student who can post a GPA of at least 2.25 in summer school can continue as a student in the fall. (The Legislature is considering one proposal that would require UT to continue the summer program.)

No wonder parents are panicking. A generation ago, when I applied to the University of Texas, the trickiest part of the process was locating a stamp. I was so confident of my admission to UT that I didn’t bother to apply elsewhere. I remember suspense all right& in anticipation of my dorm assignment. My life would be ruined if I were not assigned to Kinsolving dorm with my best friend, where our two sisters were already ensconced. It all came off without a hitch.

Now I’m the mother of a high school sophomore, and my friends with older kids relay cautionary tales. Applying to college has become an Ironman-like competition. How’s your seventeen-year-old’s résumé? Independent college counselors, available at $100 per hour, will help you spiff up how he looks on paper. SAT prep courses, at $850 a pop, are de rigueur. While I spent my summers working minimum-wage jobs and getting sunburned on Galveston Island, today’s high school sophomores and juniors must, according to a newsletter before me, plan “worthwhile and rewarding summer activities that will expand your horizons and make you a more interesting person… . such activities will also get you points with admissions officers when you are applying to colleges.”

Senior year has become a gauntlet of essay writing, juggling deadlines for multiple college applications (you must apply to your dream school and several backups, as well as a couple of “safe” schools), and filling out applications for housing and financial aid. Sleep-deprived eighteen-year-olds lurch from résumé-enhancing community-service projects to SAT prep courses. A funeral dirge would be appropriate background music for such a life, except that what the students are listening to instead are vocabulary-building tapes, purchased by their parents for their seniors to listen to as they race from one activity to the next.

In the time since I got into UT, the idea that every Texan has a birthright to become a Longhorn or an Aggie has vanished. Now, with the 10 percent law, even really smart kids can’t get in. Admission to certain schools within UT and A&M is as competitive as admission to any of the nation’s premier public institutions: Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina. The horror stories pile up. A Highland Park High School counselor tells of a student who just missed the top 10 percent and was summarily denied admission to UT business school. Luckily, his second choice accepted him: Harvard. Another college counselor advised a student applying to UT to submit applications to Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania as backups.

The tough competition at the state’s two top universities has affected other Texas colleges as well. Second-tier institutions, both public and private& Texas Christian University and Texas Tech, for instance& have been buried under historic numbers of applications. Tech’s freshman applications are up an astonishing 32 percent in one year. At TCU, admissions officers are wading through a 17 percent increase. What does that mean for the class of 2001? TCU’s dean of admissions, Ray Brown, provides the obvious answer: “Well, it means that it’s seventeen percent harder to get into TCU this year.”

While parents focus their ire on the new law, officials at UT and A&M say the tidal wave of applicants prompted the fierce competition. But they also acknowledge that the unforeseen consequences of the 10 percent law have caused them to make some changes. After top 10 percenters filled the entire entering class of business majors last year, UT will now fill only 75 percent of that school’s freshman spots from that group. Everyone else will compete for the remaining positions.

UT officials defend the top 10 percent

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