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Texas bill would preserve UT-Austin’s admissions policies if U.S. Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

Texas bill would preserve UT-Austin’s admissions policies if U.S. Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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As university leaders around the country wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether it will overrule affirmative action, the Texas Legislature has passed a bill that would ensure the University of Texas at Austin would not have to completely change how it selects its freshman classes.

Public universities in Texas are required to automatically accept every student who graduates from high school in the top 10% of their class. But UT-Austin is an exception: Right now, state law requires that 75% of UT-Austin’s freshman class must be automatically admitted if they graduated from a Texas public high school in the top 6% of their class.

The 75% cap was put in place over a decade ago to allow the university to admit students outside of the automatic admissions policy. The university accepts a quarter of every freshman class through a holistic review process that considers a student’s grades, personal essays, extracurriculars, race and other factors.

Next month, the Supreme Court will decide two cases questioning whether universities can consider race in college admissions, which could mark the end for affirmative action. If the court strikes it down, UT-Austin would have to stop considering race in that holistic review.

But Senate Bill 2538 would allow the university to keep the 75% cap in place. The bill repeals a small provision in state law lifting the 75% cap if a court rules the university must stop considering race in admissions.

The two chambers sent the legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott for approval Friday.

“We’re just trying to continue with the status quo that UT is currently operating,” Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, said on the House floor last week before the Senate bill was approved.

UT-Austin had previously expressed concerns that without the 75% cap, the number of students that the highly selective university would be required to automatically accept would dramatically increase, causing capacity issues for its residence halls and class sizes and making it harder to accept anyone outside the top 10% of Texas’ graduating high school seniors, such as athletes or out-of-state students.

When Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, laid out the bill in the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education in April, he said UT-Austin estimates that without this change, it would have to increase its freshman class by around 4,000 students each year.

UT-Austin did not respond to a request for comment.

Texas introduced the top 10% rule in the late 1990s in response to another federal court case at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down affirmative action in the state’s public universities.

Those who support the top 10% policy say it has helped thousands of students attend Texas’ flagship university who might not have otherwise. Supporters also include those who oppose affirmative action because they see the top 10% rule as a “race-neutral” way to increase diversity at Texas public universities, though recent research has shown the policy has not increased diversity at the state’s public universities or expanded the number of Texas high schools that send high schoolers to the Forty Acres.

A few years after the policy was put in place, the Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that race in admissions was acceptable, effectively nullifying the lower court’s decision in Texas. But Texas kept the top 10% rule in place.

As the years went on, UT-Austin saw its freshman class filled mostly by students who were automatically accepted through the top 10% rule, squeezing out other students from being considered.

By 2008, 81% of incoming freshmen at UT-Austin were in the top 10% of their high school senior classes. The following year, the Legislature established the 75% cap to ensure the university would be able to accept students outside the automatic admissions process.

Over the years, as Texas high school classes have grown and applications have increased, UT has had to lower the automatic admission rate to the top 6% of a class.

The Supreme Court will make a final decision on the two cases by the end of June, but legal experts expect the court’s conservative majority to overturn affirmative action, raising questions about how the ruling might hinder efforts at predominantly white colleges and universities to diversify their student bodies.

The decision will coincide with a push in Texas and other states to prohibit diversity, equity and inclusion offices, programs or training at public universities. The Texas House gave final approval Monday to a bill that would enact such a ban. It now heads back to the Senate to determine whether to accept the House’s version.

Critics argue these DEI programs impose what they characterize as left-wing ideology onto students and faculty, and that they prioritize social justice over merit and achievement. Those who support such offices argue that removing or weakening them will make schools less welcoming places to work and study, turn back efforts to correct past discrimination against some students and stall progress to make public universities’ student populations better reflect state demographics.

“This bill doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Luis Figueroa, legislative policy director at the left-leaning think tank Every Texan. “Are we sending in a message [to] Latinos and Blacks [that they] aren’t welcome at our state universities?”

Disclosure: Every Texan and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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