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 law. “There is a lot of evidence that this is the right group of kids to be admitting,” says Bruce Walker, UT’s director of admissions. He also credits the law for attracting students from 135 Texas high schools who had not been represented in recent freshman classes. “We are one of the flagship universities of the entire state of Texas. We have an obligation to serve broadly.”

The students who are aided by the new law are excelling at UT (something that wasn’t always true for students who were admitted under affirmative action). An admissions office study tracking the performance of students admitted under the top 10 percent law shows that they are achieving better grades than their peers and staying in school, even though their SAT scores have been lower than those of the top 10 percent of students admitted in 1996.

Minority enrollment is climbing at UT and A&M, but slowly. The flagship schools have had to overcome a long history of noninvolvement with African Americans, dating back to the days of segregation. “What we discovered was that simply making students eligible to come here was not enough,” Walker says. “We had to add incentives. If you are going to change that socially embedded behavior, you are going to have to do something drastic. And frankly, money talks.”

UT officials designated 39 high schools for a newly created Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship to be awarded to top 10 percent seniors. UT president Larry Faulkner visited most of the schools personally and told the assembled seniors that he was guaranteeing $4,000 a year to a certain number of top students in the room. “That’s what made the difference,” Walker says. “He was able to say, ‘Your competition is sitting in this room.’ That gave these kids a lot of hope.”

Walker faces irate parents constantly. A mother whose son attended a prestigious private school told him that she heard the university had sponsored an essay-writing workshop one Saturday morning at an inner-city school. “She said, ‘This is so unfair. You’re giving those kids an advantage that our kids don’t have,'” Walker says. “I realized then that there are families who are not satisfied with having some of the advantages. They want all of the advantages.”

Another parent asked Walker a question he hears frequently: “Should I take my kid out of this good school and put him in a less-competitive school?” Walker gave his standard response: “You are educating your son for his whole life, not for the next event in his life.”

If families are behaving strangely, let’s at least acknowledge that the law’s nuances can be frustrating. First, there is the difficult question of magnet high schools, where elite students are recruited from all over a school district to study an intense curriculum. Should the regular students at those schools have to compete against the magnet kids, or should there be two top-10 lists, one for magnet students and one for the regular students? In Austin a court threw out an effort by the school district to create separate lists.

Another problem is that the method of calculating class rank is not uniform across Texas. The differences may cause school shopping and class shopping. Some schools give extra points for taking advanced-placement and honors courses, while others do not. At schools that do not offer the extra points, the new law may provide a disincentive for students to take the more demanding courses. Walker says he hears of efforts to maximize class rank “all the time.” Strategies range from switching schools to fulfilling difficult math requirements in an easy summer-school course and dodging honors or advanced-placement courses.

At Woodlands High School near Conroe, juniors and seniors can earn college credits in 28 advanced-placement courses. But Woodlands’ principal, Don Stockton, says parents often discourage their children from taking higher-level courses, ironically, because they believe it will hurt their offspring’s college careers. Better to take the easy A in a regular course, they believe, than risk a B in a more demanding course. “Students learn where they can get a GPA gain. The way we do it, a grade in a higher-level course counts the same as a regular course. So some kids question the advantage of taking higher-level courses,” says Stockton. “We have that conversation all the time with parents, and it’s frustrating.” The school board recently voted to change the way its schools calculate GPA, to reward students who take more-demanding courses, but the new method won’t take effect until this year’s ninth graders have completed high school.

The unrelenting stress is taking its toll on high school seniors. “Kids come in all the time and say to me, ‘I thought senior year was supposed to be a fun year,'” says Sherry Sunderman, the lead counselor for Woodlands High. “Some just completely shut down. I can’t get them to fill out an application. They are too overwhelmed. We see kids in treatment for depression, eating disorders& all because of the stress.”

Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas counselor, David Oglesby, has been preaching the message that students should consider plan B. “There are thousands of colleges in this country,” he says, “and a place for everybody. Is UT really the best place for you? Do you want to be down there with seven thousand other freshmen when it takes five years to get out?”

The competition is only going to get worse& not just for UT and A&M, but for all state universities. The sponsor of the 10 percent law, state representative Irma Rangel of Kingsville, says the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board warned the Legislature five years ago that “within ten years we were going to have at least two hundred thousand new students” vying for spots in Texas’ colleges. Many of these will be B and C students with a desire to go to college but neither the grades nor the test scores to get accepted&not just at UT or A&M but perhaps anywhere.

Their plight is little comfort to the current crop of high school students, who must work every angle for something my friends and I took for granted& admission to a state university that was prestigious, cheap, and accessible. I recently told my niece, a high school junior, that I didn’t even have to write an essay to get into UT. She smiled faintly, as if I was describing some quaint but irrelevant sepia-tinted memory of yesteryear. And of course, I was.