UT Admissions: The New Reality (2019)

February 6, 2019

Join me in a thought experiment. Let’s pretend you were the Director of Admissions at UT Austin last September. Pretty cool, right? While basking in the sun on the South Mall, you are suddenly interrupted by your Eyes of Texas ringtone. President Fenves’ assistant is on the other end demanding that you come to the President’s office immediately. His customary smile is absent. He throws an enrollment report your direction. What have I done? Is my resume up to date? Do I still have a ZipRecruiter account? With no pleasantries, President Fenves growls, “We have a problem. A huge problem.”

You review the report. It was the final enrollment numbers for the Class of 2018. He points to a highlighted number. “Do you see that? 8,900 freshmen have enrolled. That’s the largest entering class in the history of UT Austin.” A smile sheepishly appears on your face as you thought to yourself, “Yeah, pretty awesome. You wanted more, and boy did we deliver!” Without appearing too boastful, you acknowledge the achievement with a simple nod. Bewildered by your reaction, he roars “Don’t you get it? We can’t handle more than 7,600 first-year students in a class. We don’t have the housing, the classroom space, or dining facilities for a group this size.” He didn’t even mention the new-found demand for tickets to Coach Herman’s Sam-I-Am led Longhorn football team.

“This can’t happen again! I want a class of 7,600 students next Fall. Capisce?” You obediently agree and exit. Well, the good news is you are still the Director of Admissions. The bad news is you are still the Director of Admissions! You quickly call a council of war within the department and announce that the team needs to cut enrollment by 15% next admissions cycle. Mumbles and looks of dread fill the room. Visions of the scene from Apollo 13 come to mind: “We need to find a way to fit this square into this round hole using nothing but that” as he points to a collection of oddball attachments in a brown cardboard box. You have just dropped a bombshell. The very purpose of an admissions office is to attract more kids. It’s the group’s raison d’etre.

From Apollo 13, 1995

Summoning your best Ed Harris, you grab your marker and head to the whiteboard and reiterate, “failure is not an option folks.” You start with the good news. Beginning with the Fall 2019 class, the new Top 10% automatic admit threshold for UT Austin would be reduced from 7% to 6%. That will reduce the number of eligible auto-admit students by approximately 4,000. The bad news is that it still leaves about 20,000 students who could theoretically apply next year and be offered automatic admissions! You do take some comfort that historically only about 50% of those eligible for automatic admission apply. A new admissions officer points out the obvious, “doesn’t that result in 10,000 students being offered automatic admissions and we haven’t even talked about non-auto-admits and out of state students?” Theoretically, he is right. But, you introduce the concept of historical yield rates. “Based on past classes, we can expect an average yield of 50%. That is, of those 10,000 students to whom we offer automatic admissions, we expect 5,000 to enroll.” Some relief appears on the rookie’s face.

At this point, you reiterate to your staff to continue their scheduled outreach programs in search of more first-generation students, more underrepresented minorities, more geographic diversity, and more Pell Grant kids. You share the belief that such class diversity enhances the learning environment for all admitted students. That mission must continue. Every year, your team holds information sessions in numerous counties, school districts, attends college fairs, and hosts thousands of prospective student events on the forty acres. All with a singular message “Change the World, Be a Longhorn.”

Not long after your close encounter with President Fenves, the fruits of your year-round marketing start to materialize. Initially, there are no apparent signs that the number of applicants is any different than the previous year. However, as the November 1 priority deadline passes, the data starts to show a different reality. Applications for Fall 2019 were far surpassing the record-breaking numbers from last year. This trend continued throughout December. After some deserved downtime, you call your staff together to share the grim news.

Expected 2019 Numbers

  • Total Applications: 53,000 (3,000 more than 2018)
  • 10,500 Top 6% Resident Applicants
  • 24,000 Non-Top 6% Resident Applicants
  • 18,500 Out of State Applicants

You remind your team about the not-to-subtle directive received last year from President Fenves that the class size was not to exceed 7,600 students. So, before sending your troops to their private reading sanctuaries to wade through the thousands of applications received, you let them know that all 10,500 Top 6% students will be offered admission. Given the 50% expected (fingers crossed) yield, you reserve 5,250 of the 7,600 seats for auto-admits. That leaves 2,350 seats for both non-Top 6% resident students and out of state students.

The rookie again raises his hand and asks, “So, how many offers can we make?” You wonder if the heater just turned on. It’s getting warmer in your office. You walk to the whiteboard to share some fuzzy admissions math:

  • By law, 75% of total in-state admissions must be auto-admits
  • By law, no more than 10% of total admissions can be out of state
  • We know that the average yield for all applicants is expected to be 50%
  • We know we want a class size of 7,600
  • We know 5,250 of those 7,600 spots will be auto-admits
  • We know that leaves 2,350 spots for non-auto admits

You then give them the results:

  • Of the 24,000 non-top 6% resident applicants, you can only admit 3,500 (14.6%)
  • Of the 18,500 out of state applicants, you can only admit 1,555 (8.4%)
  • Based on expected yields, this would produce a class of 7,777

With this information in hand, your team begins an alchemic process of mixing academic performance, personal achievements, recommendations, and essays holistically reviewing over 42,000 non-auto admit applications. The results start leaking out. Students with near-perfect grades, high test scores, eagle scouts, charity founders, and third-generation longhorns are getting CAPed (“Coordinated Admissions Program”). Despite the rich irony of its acronym, UT’s CAP program does offer some life to those not admitted. It is an offer to go to another UT System school with a possible transfer to UT Austin Liberal Arts after the first year (approximately 16,000 applicants were offered CAP for Fall 2019).

Phones start ringing. State legislators get angry emails from constituents. How can this be? How can the State’s flagship university be turning so many well-deserved kids away? Rumors spread that your team erroneously scored a batch of essays. Message boards tell the world that kids being rejected at UT Austin are getting into Ivy League schools. Anger boils over.

On your last day in this Twilight Zone, you sit with your fellow admissions officers. You are happy your team was able to reduce the total number of admitted students by nearly 4,000 from last year (19,482 in 2018 to an estimated 15,555 in 2019). You know that if you get the expected 50% yield, there will be a class close to President Fenves’ goal of 7,600. This achievement came with a high cost however: the gut-wrenching burden of rejecting so many well-qualified students. Tens of thousands of kids received rejections. They made many sacrifices over the previous three years to become a Longhorn. And yet, you had to tell them no. You remind your team it’s primarily the system handed to them by the legislature.

Snap. Back to reality. The role-playing is over. Being UT’s Director of Admissions is tougher than it looks. I have no unique insight into President Fenves’ internal conversations or those of the actual UT Admissions Office. The numbers I share above are all based on UT released information and watching and dissecting President Fenves’ recent testimony before the Texas Senate Committee on Finance. I’m sure they will be slightly different in the final count, but the overall theme should stick.

Too many students enrolled last year so reductions had to be made in the non-auto admits

The new reality of UT admissions is that high-quality education, the Austin lifestyle, and its relatively low cost has made UT Austin a much-desired destination for over 53,000 prospective students (and growing). It can handle only an average of 7,600 students per freshman class. If the yield of 50% increases (and why wouldn’t it with more outreach and better resources invested in UT Austin), it will only get more challenging to gain admission. The Armageddon scenario is that a much higher percentage of auto-admits apply and accept. Theoretically, UT could be flooded with 20,000 auto-admit enrollees in any one year (and that is at 6%)! Some provisions in the law could kick in if that happens like first-come-first-serve or a lottery. Nobody wants that.

The 1997 Top 10% legislation (HB 588, as modified in 2009 by SB 175) was passed in direct response to Hopwood vs. State of Texas, 78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1997), in which the Court held that racial preferences could not be made in the admissions process. In the stated name of geographic diversity (the number of counties represented has grown from 120 in 1997 to over 220 in 2018), racial rebalancing has undoubtedly been achieved:

UT Statistical Handbooks, 1997 and 2017

It is essential to understand that the world in which the Top 10% Plan evolved has dramatically changed. The Supreme Court of the United States has, since Hopwood, addressed race in higher education admissions multiple times. In the most recent case, Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, 136 S. Ct. 2198 (2016), the Court considered UT Austin’s use of race as one of the many factors in the holistic review. The majority concluded that the way UT Austin uses race for the non-auto admits was constitutional. Thus, it might be ripe to merely repeal the Hopwood-era legislation and go back to an entirely holistic admissions process.

No one wants to deprive a college-ready Texas resident the opportunity to attend a public post-secondary institution. That should not be part of the debate. The only question is which one. In addition to the UT System, students can attend Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, Texas Tech University, among others. Should a student be entitled to attend any school of their choice based almost entirely on a class rank?

In the Finance Committee hearing this week, one Senator stated that he is working on a bill that would offer automatic admissions to the UT System but not a specific school. That is the same system, by the way, that President Fenves worked under for over 20 years at UC Berkeley. A holistic review would then be applied to all auto-admits to determine which school(s) they would be offered admission. It is a system that has worked for California for over 60 years according to President Fenves. Perhaps California is a model to study. UC Berkeley has become a de facto honors college at no apparent harm to UCLA and others in the UC System.

Short of building a bigger campus in Austin to accommodate more students, would the California-like solution make everyone happy? Of course not. Holistic admissions is subjective by definition. A kid’s worth to a particular school is much more than a simple formula of test scores, grades, and impressive extracurriculars. Some can only achieve a certain level due to their circumstances and opportunities, yet they possess a great intellect. Others achieve what appears to be so much, but when juxtaposed against what was afforded them, their achievements are not as impressive. It is all about finding the right fit between student and school. There is no doubt that some kids automatically admitted to UT Austin under the current system are a poor fit while others who were rejected would be a great fit. That is the beauty of holistic admissions. The admissions officers can do their job and find the right students for the right schools.

Admission to UT Austin will continue to be a lofty achievement rather than a birthright. The debate on admission is an important one. In the meantime, continue to encourage your kids to find and embrace their passion. They need to remain intellectually curious. And, now more than ever, make sure your child has choices. Visit other campuses. Make sure to research more than a handful of options. Make a real college list. There are thousands of schools to consider. Find alternatives to UT Austin. They are out there. Lastly, know that regardless of where your son or daughter is admitted, it is the person they are when they leave home that will have the most significant impact on their lives, not the school!