Higher Education Committee

On April 9, the Texas Senate passed SB 1530, a bill filed by Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. The bill would maintain the cap on students admitted under the Top Ten Percent Rule in the event that the U. S. Supreme Court strikes down UT’s race-conscious holistic admissions policy in the pending case of Fisher v. University of Texas. It also extends the cap from 2015 to 2017. Under existing law, the cap, which mandates that no more than 75 percent of an incoming freshman class can be automatically admitted by the Top Ten Percent Rule, would automatically expire if the Supreme Court deems race-conscious admissions unconstitutional. If that were to happen, almost all of the next incoming freshman class would be admitted based solely on high school rank.

A similar bill filed by House Higher Education Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, awaits a vote on the House floor.

If either bill passes, the governor signs it and the Supreme Court rules against race-conscious admissions, UT’s admissions results will remain much the same. That’s because the holistic element of UT’s admissions policy, despite the claims of both its supporters and critics, does not actually increase minority enrollment.

According to data released last fall by the Office of Admissions, UT admits lower percentages of African-American and Hispanic students through holistic review than through automatic admission. For example, in 2011, 5 percent of the holistic review admits were African-American compared to 6 percent of the automatic admits. More strikingly, 14 percent of holistic review admits were Hispanic, compared to 29 percent under the Top Ten Percent Rule.

The numbers suggest that the demographic that benefits most from the holistic process are mostly white students from wealthier, more competitive high schools where good grades do not guarantee a spot in the top 10 percent of one’s graduating class.

Applicants from outside of Texas are also advantaged under the holistic process. Only 8.3 percent of UT’s entering freshman class was from out of state in 2010, compared to much larger percentages at comparable institutions. If the cap were to expire, that 8.3 percent would dwindle down to almost nothing.

Regardless of one’s personal opinion on affirmative action, a cap is necessary under the current system. All qualified out-of-state students and in-state students from competitive high schools should not be prevented from attending UT, as they would if the cap were to expire. Moreover, an entirely automatic process would take away all of the benefits of a holistic admissions policy, which gives applicants additional ways — such as essays, admissions tests and extracurricular resumes — to prove their merit beyond simple class rank.

During the Senate Higher Education Committee meeting on April 3 at which the bill was sent to the Senate floor, Kedra Ishop, UT’s vice provost and director of admissions, echoed this sentiment, saying the cap “gives us the breathing room to both pursue our highly qualified Top Ten Percent-ers and in addition pursue those students who are not in the top 10 percent but are potentially robust contributors to the campus.”

It is easy to see the University’s rationale for that goal. However, UT still presents its holistic process as a way to increase campus diversity. That perception is inconsistent with the facts.

Seliger’s bill may prove unnecessary if the Supreme Court rules in UT’s favor, but it is a responsible safeguard, as the decision will likely be issued after the Texas legislative session adjourns until 2015. However, the existing admissions policy is itself inadequate as a means to increase campus diversity, and this bill does not change that.

On April 4, the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee voted  to send SB 1530 to the full Senate with a favorable report. The bill, written by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, the chairman of the Higher Education Committee, would allow UT to keep a cap on the number of students admitted under the Top 10 Percent Rule if the Supreme Court rules against using race as a factor in admissions decisions in Fisher v. University of Texas — the pending lawsuit filed against the University by Abigail Fisher, a rejected applicant who claims she was denied admission in 2008 due to her race. (Fisher is white.) 

Currently, 75 percent of incoming freshmen are admitted under the Top 10 Percent Rule, while the remaining 25 percent are admitted based on holistic review by the Office of Admissions. In the holistic review process, factors beyond a student’s GPA, such as recommendations, essays, their resume and race are considered.  But the imminent ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas could deem holistic review that considers race unconstitutional. 

Seliger’s bill is necessary because Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, introduced an amendment in 2009 to the bill that originally established the Top 10 Percent Rule. The amendment, called the “Hook ‘em” Amendment, forces UT to accept up to 100 percent of incoming students through the Top 10 Percent Rule if considering race in admissions is deemed unconstitutional. If SB 1530 passes and the Supreme Court rules against UT, the University could continue to admit up to 25 percent of its freshman class through the holistic review process rather than through the Top 10 Percent Rule, although they would no longer consider race. 

If the Supreme Court rules that race cannot be a factor in the admissions process, the “Hook ’em” Amendment would undo SB 175,  a compromise bill passed in 2009 that gave UT more control over who it admits. Prior to SB 175 there was no cap on the percentage of incoming students who were admitted through the Top 10 Percent Rule. 

Gonzales introduced the “Hook ‘em” Amendment because she feared the end result of a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Fisher would be a less racially diverse campus caused by a race-blind holistic admissions process, which would likely diminish the diversity of the 25 percent of students in each incoming class admitted that way. In a September editorial, we pointed out that her fear was unfounded; underrepresented minority students have made up a larger percentage of the automatic admits than those admitted under holistic review. For example, in 2010 and 2011, 6 percent of automatic admissions were granted to black students, while only 5 percent of holistic review admissions were granted to black students. The same trend stands for 2008 and 2009, but it is even more dramatic for Latinos. In 2010, 28 percent of automatically admitted students were Latino, while only 12 percent of holistic review admits were Latinos. In 2011, 29 percent of automatic admits were Latino and 14 percent of holistic review admissions went to Latino students. Overall, 22 percent of the holistic review’s admits are minorities versus 37 percent through the Top 10 Percent Rule.

If the Supreme Court rules that race cannot be a factor in the admissions process, the “Hook ’em” Amendment would undo SB 175,  a compromise bill passed in 2009 that gave UT more control over who it admits. Prior to SB 175 there was no cap on the percentage of incoming students who were admitted through the Top 10 Percent Rule. 

The Senate committee voted unanimously in favor of Seliger’s bill. Prior to that vote, representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund testified that the holistic review process admits fewer minority students than the Top 10 Percent Rule. 

UT President William Powers Jr. and and UT’s Director of Admissions Kedra Ishop, however, gave statistics showing some slight growth in minority enrollment during years when 25 percent of UT admits have come through holistic review. Powers and Ishop provided those number after Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, asked how campus’ racial diversity has changed since SB 175 passed four years ago. Ishop testified that the percentage of African-Americans enrolled in the freshman class — around 5 percent in 2010 — increased by one percentage point between 2010 and 2012, while the percentage of Hispanic students who enrolled remained flat at 25 percent. 

Despite the small, and in some cases nonexistent improvements to the student body’s racial diversity, Sen. West explained his support for Seliger’s bill, which preserves the status quo: “I think that Texas is moving in the right direction as relates to diversifying the student population. I want to send a strong message to Texas today that I’m really supportive of these measures.”

But this eagerness doesn’t line up with the reality of UT’s current admissions policy, which has not had a meaningful impact on the racial diversity of the student body. When asked how SB 175 impacted UT’s efforts to recruit a more racially diverse student body, Powers said “I believe with confidence SB 175 at least didn’t hurt our minority recruiting,” though he conceded that no analysis exists to prove his assertion.

The “Hook ’em” Amendment would mean that 100 percent of UT’s freshmen class could be Top 10 Percent Rule-admitted students as early as 2016, according to Ishop. And while such a scenario would mean less diversity in terms of out-of-state and international students, it also means a likely increase in the racial diversity of the student body since a higher percentage of racial minorities are accepted through the Top 10 Percent Rule than through holistic review.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who serves on the Senate  Higher Education Committee and voted in favor of Seliger’s bill, concluded her questioning of Powers by saying, “Members of the Legislature who want to focus on diversity in the student body really should focus on adequate appropriations so tuition could be lower, and on funding financial aid.”  Powers concurred, later adding that of all of the diversity-enhancing tools at UT’s disposal, financial aid is always the most effective. 

We agree with Sen. Zaffirini’s logic. In order to make the UT student body more diverse, the Legislature should work to make college more accessible to students from a broader variety of backgrounds, be they racial, economic or geographic. We need an admissions strategy that will ensure a fully diverse student body — taking into account factors beyond just race — that will work regardless of the Fisher v. UT ruling or any other by the Supreme Court.

A freshman representative’s bill gives the Texas Legislature a bill in both houses that would allow concealed firearms on university campuses.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, filed the bill Thursday, two days after a shooting at Lone Star College-North Harris Campus in Houston injured four people and a week after state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, filed similar legislation in the Texas Senate.

Capriglione said on his Facebook that he believes Texas’ environment for expanding concealed carry has improved and support for such measures enjoys substantial support in the House.

“If the bill makes it to the House floor, I feel confident it passes. It’s not going to be easy, but for the sake of our students, it needs to happen,” Capriglione said on his Facebook page.

Under both bills, higher education institutions could not prohibit gun permit holders from carrying concealed firearms on campus, but would allow private universities and dormitories to decide whether to allow concealed carry on their premises.

At an event held Thursday by the Texas Politics Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both houses’ Higher Education Committee chairmen each said concealed carry legislation is not their top priority for this legislative session.

Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo and chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said he voted for the bill when it was introduced during previous sessions and the bill will receive a hearing in his committee.

“I don’t think [the bill] has some of the harmful effects that people say it does,” Seliger said. “Keep in mind, those people are all going to be over 21-years-old, they will all have had a security check — and a pretty decent one — and some minimum amount of training.” 

Dan Branch, R-Dallas and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said he may prefer allowing institutions to decide whether to allow concealed carry rather than issuing a statewide mandate.

“For me, my sense is I’m not sure there’s a need for a one-size-fits-all on this issue,” Branch said.

Some UT officials oppose measures to allow concealed carry on campus. In 2011, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry saying that he did not believe allowing concealed weapons on campus would create safer premises. UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said in a Jan. 18 e-mail that Cigarroa’s views have not changed.

In January, President William Powers Jr. co-authored a letter with 10 other university presidents who serve on the executive committee of the Association of American Universities asking President Obama and Congress to take action to prevent gun violence in the U.S., partially by enacting gun control measures.

The Texas House of Representatives gained seven Democrats, increasing the number of Democratic seats to 55. Republicans will continue to make up the majority of the House with 95 seats.

Democrats won seven districts previously held by Republicans representatives. Going into the election, Republicans held an overwhelming majority in the House with 102 representatives, while Democrats held 48 seats.

Higher education is expected to play a large part in upcoming legislation as changes to state allocations of university budgets and cuts to financial aid programs have been much discussed during the interim session.

The House Higher Education Committee will not face a member shake-up as all eight of its nine members who were up for re-election will return to the House in January. Committee chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, was re-elected to his fifth term as representative for District 108 with 81.1 percent of the vote.

Branch continually pushes for higher education reform. He authored House Bill 51 in 2009, creating the Tier One Initiative to promote Tier One universities in Texas. While the term has no concrete definition, Tier One identifies significant research institutions.

Branch also helped pass legislation, capping UT’s admission under the Top 10 Percent rule to 75 percent of in-state students for each incoming class. Branch serves as co-chairman of the Joint Oversight Committee of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency.

The makeup of the higher education committee is more balanced and was previously made up of five Republicans and four Democrats.

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, beat Republican candidate Robert Thomas for House District 48 with 59 percent despite recent redistricting that changed the district’s makeup.

In 2010, Howard won re-election by just four votes. She was first elected to the House in 2006.

Howard is a friend of higher education and supports restoring funds to financial assistance programs such as TEXAS Grants, the state’s primary need-based financial aid program for in-state college students.

Last week, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended cuts to individual TEXAS Grants to increase the total number of students who receive the award.

Reps. John Raney, R-Huntsville; and Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, defeated their opponents and were re-elected with 61.4 percent and 83.6 percent of the vote, respectively.

Reps. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas; Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas; Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa; and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, ran unopposed.

The committee could see one new face during the upcoming legislative session with the retirement of Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for District 20. Castro, a champion of affordability and access to higher education, served as a state representative for five terms.

Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, will have to appoint a new member to the Higher Education Committee. Straus announced appointments in February 2011 after the last election in 2010.

In an unexpected reshuffling of state Senate committee chairmanships, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst replaced a longtime Democrat from the Higher Education Committee.

Dewhurst announced a reorganization of Senate committee appointments for the upcoming legislative session Thursday morning, replacing the former Higher Education chair, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, with Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.

Zaffirini was appointed to chair the Senate Committee on Government Organization, which will oversee reviews of state agencies through the sunset legislation.

Seliger said the Higher Education Committee will continue to focus on high-quality and affordable education.

“I don’t think the committee’s priorities will change, because the priorities of higher education in Texas don’t change,” Seliger said.

He said the committee will not push programs that align with committee agendas from previous sessions.

“We won’t be strictly looking at specific programs,” Seliger said. “We are charged to look at education in the larger sense. We will focus on the overall goal of education and look for what we can do to assist universities in reaching that goal.”

The Daily Texan spoke with Zaffirini about her goals for the upcoming session, all of which revolved around higher education.

Zaffirini said she planned to pursue outcome-based funding for universities, a model endorsed by Gov. Rick Perry earlier this week. Outcome-based funding would tie the number of graduating students to 10 percent of an institution’s funding.

Zaffirini also said she hoped to increase funding for state financial aid programs after major cuts slashed aid for students during the previous legislative sessions.

“Part of affordability is financial aid, which the Legislature has reduced,” Zaffirini said. “I’m hoping to restore some of that funding now that we don’t have the same dire circumstances. It’s important that we identify how much a quality education costs and what the costs are for students.”

A champion of affordable higher education, Zaffirini served as chair of the Higher Education Committee since its inception in 2009. She chaired the Higher Education Subcommittee beginning in 2005 before it was upgraded to a regular committee. 

Zaffirini will continue to serve on the Higher Education Committee and the Subcommittee on Higher Education Funding as a regular member. She will also continue to co-chair the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency with Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Seliger said it is too early to talk about increasing funding to any program.

“Every area needs increased funding right now,” he said. “With increased expectations of higher education, we will work with and talk to universities about appropriations before moving forward.”

Seliger previously served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting during the 82nd legislative session.

Seliger’s appointment to the Higher Education Committee aims “to maximize the benefits of his interest in education and workforce development and his ability to work with all members,” according to a statement released by Dewhurst.

“This upcoming session will be difficult,” Dewhurst said in the statement. “As a lifelong businessman, I have constantly tried to challenge my colleagues and myself through new leadership opportunities and rotating assignments that require fresh conservative thinking and conservative solutions.”

Dewhurst recently lost a Texas primary runoff election. Republican Ted Cruz beat Dewhurst in August, becoming the party’s nominee for Texas Senator.

Printed on Friday, October 5, 2012 as: Education board shuffles: New academic outlook arises from redistribution of committee positions