Column: Texas colleges buck trend concerning class rank

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texans don’t always value the same things as the rest of the country. We probably like our barbecue more and our lutefisk less than folks up north, for instance.

But every once in a while, you start to wonder if those folks outside the Republic might be onto something.

Not with lutefisk (dried cod jellied in lye, for the non-Minnesotans out there). But with the way we admit kids into our colleges.

For the last few years, the Texas Legislature has pushed the state’s public universities in one direction. Most of the country has been lockstep the other way.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Every year, the National Association for College Admission Counseling asks universities a simple question: What do you look for in an applicant? Tracking the answers over time gives you a good idea what’s in and what’s out in the eyes of admissions offices.

The one factor that’s most out: Class rank. In 1993, 42 percent of schools said they placed “considerable importance” on a student’s class rank. In 2003, only 33 percent did. That’s the biggest drop of any factor.

Over that same span, SAT and ACT scores became more important to admissions directors: 46 percent valued them a lot in 1993, vs. 61 percent in 2003. A student’s high school grades also jumped up in importance.

So, nationwide, class rank is on the way down. SAT scores and grades are on the way up.

In Texas, class rank means everything. SAT scores and grades are afterthoughts. Either Texas is backwards, or everybody else is backwards.

“We’re admitting a lot of students we might not otherwise want to take,” said Mark Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System.

The reason is, of course, the controversial top 10 percent law. The Legislature has decided that students who finish in the top 10 percent of their high school class are automatically accepted into the state university of their choice.

As long as you fill out the paperwork on time, nothing else matters. Your SAT scores can be microscopic. Your extracurricular activities can stop at making lint sculptures and paper airplanes. It doesn’t matter: You’re in.

But most other universities are heading in the opposite direction. “Class rank is really a third-tier factor now,” said David Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy. “As an indicator of how successful a student will be in college, it tells you a little, but not a lot.”

One reason: Class rank, by itself, doesn’t tell you much. The top 10 percent at Highland Park High isn’t equal to the top 10 percent at North Dallas High. And every school ranks its students in different ways. Does Advanced Placement Physics count more than gym? Do art classes count at all? Do senior-year classes count more than freshman-year classes? Different schools have different answers.

“Class rank has become less and less meaningful,” said Ann Wright, vice president for enrollment at Rice University, Texas’ most selective institution. “It’s interesting to see who’s in the top 10 percent or the top quarter. But it’s certainly not very accurate.”

“Class rank can tell you something, but only if you know something about the high school,” said Monty Curtis, associate vice president for enrollment management at Southwestern University. “There’s no consistency.”

It’s becoming an issue because now more than 70 percent of freshmen admitted to UT-Austin are getting in via the top 10 percent law. Dr. Yudof said in a few more years the entire class might be admitted that way. “Some of these kids may not have the most compelling personal histories,” he said delicately. “I think it’s too mechanical.”

Pressure’s mounting – particularly from Republican-vote-heavy suburbs – for the Legislature to change the rule. Dr. Yudof said he would support taking another look.

There are plenty of good arguments for the law. Its original intent was to boost student diversity, and it has done that. It’s allowing UT to draw students from a wider geographic area and not just the Dallas and Houston suburbs. And preliminary studies have indicated that the top-10ers do just as well as everyone else once they get to Austin.

But it’s still curious that admissions officers in the rest of the country – who can choose to admit students however they want – are slapping down class rank just as Texas is raising it up.

“We like to see kids taking the toughest classes and doing well in them, no matter their rank ,” said Chris Ellertson, dean of admissions at San Antonio’s Trinity University. “Class rank is meaningful only in the context of other factors.”