COLLEGE STATION — In the minds of many Texans, the Lone Star State’s two flagship universities are polar opposites: The University of Texas at Austin is perceived as diverse, urban and liberal. Texas A&M University is viewed as white, rural and conservative.
On the surface, the two universities’ admissions policies reflect that view. UT-Austin proudly practices affirmative action to bolster its minority student ranks and has spent years defending the policy in federal court. A&M eschews giving minority applicants any kind of advantage. If you get into A&M, its administrators say, you are doing it solely on your merits.
But a surprising shift has occurred at A&M over the last decade. Despite its reluctance to formally consider the race of its applicants, the university has worked hard to convince black and Hispanic students to apply and enroll. Since 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the legality of affirmative action in college admissions, A&M has continued not using it, yet the share of black and Hispanic students has more than doubled at its College Station campus — from 10.8 percent to 23.1 percent.
That 114 percent growth can't simply be attributed to statewide demographic shifts. At UT-Austin, black and Hispanic enrollment has grown by 45 percent over the same time. Last fall, black and Hispanic students made up about the same share of the student body at A&M as UT-Austin.
A&M officials give credit to their embrace of the state's controversial Top 10 Percent Rule, an evolution of how the school views itself and a university-wide commitment to making A&M a more welcoming place for minorities.
“This is an effort that has got everybody’s attention,” said Joseph Pettibon, associate vice president for academic services.
The shift is especially relevant this month, since any day now the U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule on whether UT-Austin’s use of affirmative action is constitutional. A narrow ruling against UT-Austin in the case known as Fisher v. the University of Texas could end affirmative action in the state. A broad ruling could end it nationwide.
Many universities have thrown their support behind UT-Austin, saying they need affirmative action to attract diverse student bodies that broaden their students' horizons and provide educational opportunity to everyone. But A&M officials say they aren’t too worried about the case. The court’s decision likely won’t affect their admissions policy either way. And they say their story proves that universities can diversify their student bodies without giving certain races an admissions advantage.
Embracing The Top 10 Percent Rule
The decision for A&M to avoid considering race was made in 2003 after the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Michigan could use affirmative action in its law school admissions. Before that, Texas universities were bound by a 1996 ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmative action was unconstitutional.
The 1996 ruling led to Texas' Top 10 Percent Rule, which promises automatic admission into public Texas universities for students who rank near the top of their high school’s graduating class. The rule ignores the SAT and other factors, which on average benefit white and Asian students, and was meant to ensure that a certain number of students from the state’s poorer, lower-performing schools can also get into a top public college.
With the rule in place, then-President Robert Gates figured A&M could achieve more diversity without changing other admissions policies.
“Every student who is at A&M must know ... that he or she and all students here have been admitted on personal merit,” Gates said at the time.
Gates left the university in 2006 to become U.S. secretary of defense, but the school's embrace of the rule continues. In the past few years, UT-Austin officials have railed against the policy, saying it overwhelms them with automatically admitted students and restricts the Austin university’s ability to build its study body to its liking. A&M has always received fewer automatic admittees, but the number is growing. School officials say they are fine with that.
“If you are really critical of the 10 Percent Rule, what you are saying is that we don’t want the kids from the [less competitive schools],” said A&M President Michael Young.
Fighting the rule, Young said, sends the message to those schools that “we would prefer to have an admissions process that doesn’t require us to admit you.”
“I don’t know that I would leap to join a school that communicated that to me,” Young said. “But I do think you are going to succeed here [at A&M]. The data show that.”
Promising admission to students doesn't guarantee that they will attend, however. A&M officials say they have also worked to make sure that those students know that A&M wants them. The decision not to use affirmative action caused major backlash, with minority leaders noting that four decades earlier, A&M still wasn’t allowing women or black students.
In the years after the 2003 ruling, the university opened brick-and-mortar recruiting offices in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Laredo, McAllen and Corpus Christi and hired recruiting staff in Austin and El Paso.
“We were going to bring people from A&M into their community, and we were going to bring not just people who could talk about admissions but who could talk about financial aid,” Pettibon said.
Officials said they didn’t try to dismiss their mixed past in regard to race relations. And they acknowledge that sometimes issues do spring up. This spring, a group of students visiting the A&M campus from a predominantly black school reported being harassed with racial slurs and a demand to "go back where you came from."
The incident brought a swift apology from A&M administrators. Young and other top administrators met personally with the group and later visited their school. One of the A&M students involved in the incident later left school, the university said.
A&M doesn't promise a conflict-free four years on campus, administrators said. But they have tried to hire “socially and culturally competent” recruiters who can share their experiences as A&M students and help put worries at ease.
“When you are recruiting first-generation students, and in particular blacks and Hispanics, you are also recruiting their families,” said Christine Stanley, A&M’s vice president for diversity.
A&M has also stepped up its financial aid. It created a new scholarship for low-income, first generation students. It now offers additional aid to National Hispanic Scholars and recipients of the National Achievement Scholarships, which are awarded to black students. And it expanded its Century Scholars Program, which was created in 1996 to recruit students from 40 specific minority-majority schools in Dallas and Houston. Now, the program has been expanded to more than 100 schools and has increased its annual recipients from fewer than 50 students per year to about 400.
After surveying students who were accepted to A&M but decided not to attend, the university also changed when it sent students scholarships offers from April to the first week of February, giving poor students more time to plan for how to pay for college.
Ultimately, the change in strategy was also a change in philosophy. A&M, a proud school with fiercely loyal alumni, long believed that it didn’t need to recruit students to fill its campus. But to grow its diversity numbers, that needed to change.
“We realized that we needed to recruit not from a raw numbers standpoint, but with the population of the state of Texas not being reflected in who we were bringing into A&M, we needed to do something about that,” Pettibon said.
At high schools in south and east Dallas, which are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, A&M’s efforts have gained notice. Recruiters there are assigned to particular schools and are expected to build relationships with students, teachers and counselors.
“Word of mouth is pretty powerful,” Young said. “And what the environment is like for students really gets out there very very quickly.”
Recruiters were regular visitors at W.W. Samuell High School in South Dallas. Students there were impressed when an admissions officer personally invited them on a trip to College Station. That’s a big deal for students at Samuell, which is almost entirely black and Hispanic. Ninety percent of students are on some kind of public assistance there and often can’t afford to visit colleges outside of Dallas.
Thelma Gonzalez, the school’s college adviser, said this fall “everyone wanted to attend A&M. It really is the little things that get these students more excited to attend A&M,” she said — like face-to-face conversations about how to apply for financial aid.
Several students have decided to attend this fall, including one of Samuell's top-performing students, Jose Lopez. During the first semester of his senior year, Lopez said, "I probably saw [the A&M representative] about 10 times in, like, three months. He even gave us his number and everything."
"Whenever we would email him, he would respond within 24 hours. It shows how much they really do care," Lopez said.
Lopez originally planned to attend UT-Austin, where his sister is a student. But that school's admissions representative was rarely seen at Samuell, according to Gonzalez and Lopez. Only one student from the school plans to go to UT-Austin next year; had there been more recruiting, Gonzalez estimates that more would have chosen the school.
Every year is different, however. Last year, W.W. Samuell sent four students to A&M and two students to UT-Austin — not a very big discrepancy.
Work To Do
University leaders admit they still have a long way to go. Last year, more than half of Texas school children were Hispanic. And A&M’s student body is still far whiter than Texas overall. (A&M is 59 percent white, compared to UT-Austin, which is 45 percent white. The difference is largely due to UT-Austin’s Asian population, which makes up 17 percent of the student body compared to 6 percent at A&M.)
One of the biggest roadblocks to becoming truly representative, school officials say, is the inequity in the statewide K-12 school system. Black and Hispanic students are much more likely to attend underperforming schools near the border or in inner cities. White students are more likely to go to competitive suburban schools.
Proponents of affirmative action say that systemic failure is what makes affirmative action useful. A&M has been able to attract more minority students who, on paper, are qualified to get into a top public university. But those students would in theory be able to get into other schools, too. The university hasn’t necessarily increased the number of minority students who are able to go to a top college.
If affirmative action is banned, competition for those qualified students will likely become fiercer, making it harder for A&M to build on its recent success, school officials say.
But right now, A&M officials say they are finding students who might otherwise not be willing or able to attend a college outside their community. Those students are worried that they don’t have the money, don’t want to leave home or don’t think they belong. Changing their minds can be a huge benefit — for the school and its students, officials say.
“We are not where we want to be, and I think that as the state of Texas continues to change, so will where we want to be,” said Pettibon. “But we recognize that we have to evolve while the state evolves.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.