Road Trip: University of Texas

Bohemia on the Colorado

By + More

This article was originally published in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition.

To understand the flagship campus of the University of Texas system, enter from Guadalupe Street—"the drag," as students call it. On the university side is West Mall, a raucous bazaar of philanthropy, cultural performance, and political grandstanding, where students reserve time on open mikes to speak their mind. On the city side, Austin's most bohemian sidewalk teems with merchants, students, and panhandlers. "Keep Austin Weird" is the city's slogan and, in this part of town anyway, it fits like skinny blue jeans.

Wide-open UT-Austin has magnetic appeal for small-town Texans like Jeremiah Hudson, 19, of Freeport. A free-thinking scholarship student who considered other state schools, Hudson said: "UT fit better. It was almost like a religious experience." For Hudson, college has opened a world of possibilities, just as it has for generations of Texans. In the research center, students can read first editions of The Great Gatsby, along with letters from the author, and within a block of high-rise freshman dorms, there are masterworks at the Blanton Museum of Art. At Momo's on Sixth Street, you can hear the Band of Heathens, the South Austin Jug Band, and Warren Hood and the Hoodlums in a single week. Students will find plenty of other Texans, a majority of them white, but plenty of non-Texans, too. To top it all, Austin is the capital of Texas politics.

With a total enrollment of about 50,000, UT-Austin is bigger than many Texas towns. Recognizing that bigger isn't necessarily better (even in Texas), the university decided to trim back from a peak of nearly 52,000 in 2002 to improve the student-faculty ratio. One result: more rejection letters for state applicants, except for those with GPAs in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class. Texas law says those students have to be admitted, though not necessarily in their preferred major. The law has been feverishly debated as UT-Austin has found itself with less and less discretion over who gets in. Michael Orr, associate director of admissions, says that if the law were to go away, the school would balance SAT/ACT scores, high school courses, and personal achievements as well as grade averages, which might mean more out-of-state students.

Meanwhile, in-state students continue to find that UT-Austin broadens their horizons. As Hudson's freshman year wound down, he said going to college in Austin had taught him something about himself: He switched his plan from studying business to majoring in philosophy and economics, looking toward a career in government. "I tried to be something that wasn't me," he said.