Eyes of UT upon alumni offspring

University administrators consider giving children of alumni an admissions advantage

By Sharon Jayson
Sunday, April 6, 2003

Getting into the University of Texas isn't a birthright.

But that could change if UT officials move forward with a plan to give Longhorn families an edge in admissions.

President Larry Faulkner said he has mixed feelings about such a move. Texas Exes Executive Director Jim Boon, eager to drum up financial support among alumni, is a vocal supporter.

"If we're going to have to rely more and more on fund raising, one of the facts you have to deal with is that alumni are going to want their children to go to UT," he said. "At least we could legitimately talk to alumni and say it is one of the factors that is considered."

UT Vice President Patricia Ohlendorf is chairwoman of a panel expected to make a recommendation next month. The Commission of 125, an advisory group charged with planning for UT's future, is set to study legacy admissions. Ohlendorf and Faulkner say discussions are preliminary and that UT will first look at comparable campuses, such as the University of Michigan, which gives legacies special attention.

The issue raises questions about offering another class of students an advantage in admissions. UT has 370,000 living alumni and is bursting with more than 52,000 students. The flagship university is rapidly filling its freshman class with applicants accepted under the state's top 10 percent law.

The law guarantees Texans admission to the public university of their choice if they graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Seventy-three percent of Texans who were offered places in the fall freshman class are top 10 percent students; they make up 63 percent of the entire group.

UT also recruits students who have special talents, such as musicians and athletes, who must meet NCAA academic eligibility standards. Individual departments ask admissions officials to save space for such students, and the departments do the recruiting.

In addition, admissions officials sometimes give extra consideration to children and grandchildren from the families of VIPs, such as politicians and major donors. Such applicants get scrutiny beyond the usual assessments of academic and personal achievement, including additional reviews of essays, transcripts and achievements. Officials also compare how fellow students at the same high schools were treated, said Bruce Walker, UT admissions director.

All told, about 100 athletes and almost 200 others were on the list for special attention this fall. Walker declined to say how many were for VIPs, children of politicians or major donors, or friends of an influential regent or other university official. Ultimately, he estimated, a handful of fine arts students, another handful with VIP connections and fewer than 100 athletes will become Longhorns. Admissions officials are still considering appeals from some of almost 500 students who did not win places.

Specially admitted students comprise a fraction of the freshman class of 7,000, but state Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, is concerned.

"I want to get rid of all these protected classes and use the same criteria for everybody," said Wilson, who favors eliminating legacy admissions. "Just because somebody is a drama major or a band major or an athlete or whatever should not give them an edge."

AshaHill had two advantages. She was a nationally recruited basketball player who, like some of UT's recruited athletes, would have been admitted regardless because she graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at Del Valle High School in 1998. She also was recruited by Stanford and Vanderbilt universities but chose UT.

"You have anything that you may need to help you in your classes," said Hill, who graduated in 2002 and teaches and coaches in the Manor school district. "There's an academic center for athletes. You have tutors. You have mentors. That's definitely a plus."

Those students recruited in the arts can qualify for Presidential Admission Exemption Scholarships. The $1,000 annual awards are funded by the department luring the student. Most often, they are musicians who play an instrument critical to the university's orchestra program or a singer needed for the choral program. Six such scholarships were awarded to music students in 2002. Eight had been requested for the fall. Robert Freeman, dean of the College of Fine Arts, said he wants to make sure candidates can pull their weight academically.

"I don't want to admit any kid to the University of Texas, no matter what a terrific violinist or oboe player he or she may be, if it's pretty clear from the high school transcript the student isn't going to make it through the institution," he said.

Increasing competition at flagship public universities makes special admissions a source of resentment, despite their small numbers, said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

"These special admissions are not a big enough factor to cause much of a change in anybody's odds of being admitted. But the public is quite uneasy and latches onto every story of injustice and unfairness," he said. "That's now being directed at the most insignificant footnotes to admissions policy."

Critics complain about alumni preferences, especially, because they favor wealthier, mostly white applicants at a time when colleges are trying to increase diversity. The University of California stopped granting resident status to out-of-state legacy applicants. The University of Georgia, sensitive to fairness concerns, stopped awarding legacies an extra one-quarter point after a court order that blocked affirmative action admissions.

As those schools and others drop their legacy policies, UT is considering doing the opposite.

"A whole lot of the students who apply to us are legacies," Walker said. "They tell us in their essays of this long tradition of parents or grandparents who graduated from UT and want to continue that long tradition. We just don't have a way in our process to account for that."

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620