One of the most talked about news developments in March was the college admissions scandal that exposed several high-profile bribery cases where wealthy parents have been charged with buying spots at elite universities for their teenage children, which has included Hollywood actresses and business executives.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is urging universities to re-evaluate their admissions processes in the wake of a federal investigation that led to bribery charges against a men’s tennis coach at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as the resignation of a men’s basketball coach at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Scandals like these undermine programs like the Top 10 Percent Plan, which is a Texas law that secures that any high school student who ranks in the top 10 percent of their graduating class automatically qualifies for admission to any state college or university. Admission policies like this one, as well as affirmative action, aim to reflect society’s ethnic demographics by improving opportunities for communities that have historically been excluded from society. This allows for equitable access to college for students from rural areas, low and middle-income families and communities of color, as well as first-generation college students.
March is also Women’s History Month, so let me introduce you to the state legislator responsible for implementing the Top Ten Percent Plan in 1997 — the late Irma Rangel (D-Laredo). The bill was a response to a federal court decision that prohibited affirmative action admissions policies at Texas colleges, per Texas Monthly.
She grew up in an era where segregation and discriminatory policies against Mexican-Americans were openly practiced. As a lawyer and educator, she knew that rightfully-earned automatic admission would provide new opportunities for hardworking students that likely would have never left home for college.
Following Rangel’s death from cancer in 2003, Texas Monthly reported that UT-Austin’s minority enrollment in the 2003 freshman class was higher than it was under affirmative action; as a whole, the class had the highest academic qualifications in the university’s history. Over time, the law has been amended and UT-Austin has limited automatic admission to students who are in the top seven percent of their graduating class.
A current piece of legislation, SB 1477, would repeal the Top Ten Percent Plan at UT-Austin and Texas A&M University and would eliminate the Top Ten Percent Scholarships awarded to students attending higher education institutions through the Top Ten Percent Plan. The bill’s author is State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who, in his fourth term, has a strong hand in determining what the future of Texas looks like as a member of the Senate Committee on Education, Finance, Higher Education, as well as Property Tax, where he was appointed as chairman.
With regards to current education legislation at the Texas Legislature, policies like the Top Ten Percent Plan allow high-caliber students in South Texas to expand their horizons past the comfort of home. Additionally, merit-based scholarships and grants often determine whether or not a student from a low or middle-income family can afford to relocate for college and manage cost-of-living expenses in a big city, as was the case for me.
An equitable lens needs to be applied when noting comparable differences between the suburbs of Houston and the small but growing towns in the RGV. Equity is when everyone has a fair shot at success, compared to equality when everyone is treated the same. It’s the notion that your ZIP code shouldn’t determine a child’s education quality.
The Texas Legislature is prioritizing school finance reform this session, which means tackling outdated inefficiencies that have coasted by for far too long. Dismal teacher pay and newly reported standardized testing flaws need to be addressed, as well as the state’s decreasing share of school funding. Another topic that is often mentioned is “Robin Hood,” also known as “recapture” or Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code, which is a system that redistributes locally collected property taxes to the state to help fund lower-wealth districts and charter schools.
Houston is the fourth most populated city in the nation and has several premier universities, hospitals, and entertainment facilities (and its own equity concerns that were highlighted after Hurricane Harvey).
However, even with the RGV making tremendous strides in economic development in recent decades, there are still fewer resources available to area residents. In addition to Texas A&M opening an education center in McAllen, the 1.5 million people in the RGV could soon have access to its first Level 1 Trauma Center in Edinburg, which would potentially save more lives of patients with catastrophic injuries because they could be attended to locally, instead of having to be transported 240 miles by helicopter or ambulance to the nearest trauma center in San Antonio.
Aside from my commentary, a tangible action you can take to help alleviate the financial burden of college for hardworking Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD high school students is making a generous contribution to the PSJA Education Foundation or a similar charity in your hometown that provides student scholarships and teacher grants.