The University of Austin Is Now Accepting Applications. Here’s What Students Need to Know.

The Texas Higher Education Commissioning Board has given the University of Austin approval to award degrees. Now it's looking for 100 student founders to establish its legacy and build its undergrad program.
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Margaret Attridge is a news reporter for BestColleges focusing on higher education news stories in California. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in May 2022 with a BA in journalism and government and politics....
Published on November 30, 2023
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The University of Austin campus at the Scarbrough Building in downtown Austin. Photo courtesy of the University of Austin

  • The Texas Higher Education Commissioning Board has given the University of Austin approval to award degrees.
  • The university was founded in 2021 as a solution to what its founders say is a lack of freedom of inquiry and civil discourse on U.S. college campuses.
  • The university is recruiting 100 students to start in fall 2024.

Two years after a cadre of educators and conservative activists announced the formation of the University of Austin, the new institution dedicated to a fearless pursuit of truth is accepting applications for its first class.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board at its October meeting approved the issuance of a certificate of authority to the University of Austin (UATX). And on Nov. 8, the institution announced it was accepting undergraduate applications for fall 2024.

UATX touts itself as a solution to what founding President Pano Kanelos described as the fractured institution of higher education, where truth and freedom of speech are merely suggestions, intellectual dissent is not protected, and schools only care about their bottom line.

Universities are the places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped, Kanelos wrote in his 2021 missive announcing the institution's founding.

If these institutions are not open and pluralistic, if they chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints, if they lead scholars to avoid entire topics out of fear, if they prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth, who will be left to model the discourse necessary to sustain liberty in a self-governing society?

Since its announcement in 2021, the institution has raised $200 million in private donations and has received approval from the Texas Higher Education Commissioning Board to award degrees, allowing the university to start accepting applications for the fall 2024 semester.

Now, with the ability to grant bachelor's degrees in Texas secured, the university is looking for its first 100 student founders to launch the university's legacy and build its undergraduate program — all for free.

BestColleges spoke with University of Austin leaders to learn how interested students can apply; what student life may look like; how the institution is approaching accreditation; and how it intends to guarantee academic freedom, free and open inquiry, and civil discourse in the classroom.


The first 100 students will be accepted on a rolling basis and be eligible for the Founders Scholarship, a four-year full scholarship for students admitted to the 2024 inaugural class.

Interested students can apply on the UATX website and must include a personal statement, an essay, and two letters of recommendation. The university also requires standardized test scores to be submitted in each application. Students have a choice between the SAT, ACT, and the Classic Learning Test, a classically based college entrance exam.

Stephen Asoli, director of admissions for UATX, told BestColleges that the admissions committee is looking for students who have demonstrated academic capacity and show leadership and creative capabilities.

The student I'm looking for not only can be very disciplined and high performing academically but also has that inclination that they want to go out there and apply their skills and talents, he said. The mission of the university is to forge builders, founders, and innovators, so those are the key traits that we're looking for in our applicants.

Over 200 students have applied since applications opened Nov. 9, according to Asoli.

A Vision of University of Austin Student Life

The undergraduate curriculum consists of two two-year programs. First- and second-year students will take part in the Intellectual Foundations program, which the university describes as an intensive exploration of the fundamental human questions that will cultivate a virtue that is today as necessary as it is rare: sound judgment.

Students will study from readings ranging from Homer, Euclid, Genesis, the Gospel of John, Ibn Tufayl, and Confucius to Descartes, Tocqueville, Orwell, Douglass, and O’Connor, according to UATX.

Juniors and seniors will serve as junior fellows, specializing in an area of study, similar to a major within the university's three academic centers: the Center for Arts and Letters; the Center for Economics, Politics, and History; and the Center for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Areas of study include computing and data science; economics, politics, and history; ethics and politics; and literature and creative writing.

Students will also be expected to embark on a four-year Polaris Project, applying their skills and interests in a way that will advance human flourishing in some way. Asoli said Polaris Projects can range from writing a novel to working on state legislation action, starting a business, or launching a project within coding and engineering.

Whatever the student's interests really are is the limit. What restricts them is their imagination, he said.

The university will launch in the Scarbrough Building located in downtown Austin (pictured above), so students will be expected to live near the university’s campus during their first two years. While a residential campus has not yet been built, the university says it has started the master planning process.

Extracurricular activities will be limited in the first year, and students will play a large role in what becomes available.

A lot of student life will be driven by the student's level of participation, Jacob Howland, provost of UATX, told BestColleges. If there's interest in a club, the students should put together a proposal ... [and] pitch that to the university, and the university wants to support those kinds of initiatives.

With the university being located in downtown Austin, a half-mile from the Texas State Capitol and just over a mile from the University of Texas at Austin, students will also be able to explore the city and all it has to offer.

Howland also said the university plans to partner with local Austin organizations, including the Austin Shakespeare Company, to offer various opportunities and discounts to students.

Accreditation: A Work in Progress

While UATX has degree-granting power, it will take several years to receive accreditation — a review process that ensures the university meets acceptable levels of quality.

Accreditation can take years, Howland explained. He said the first class of students has to graduate for accreditation to be awarded.

Once we get accreditation, it will be based on the undergraduates that we have produced. So when [an accreditation organization] accredits a school, they're saying that the education that these undergraduates got was up to [their] standards, he said. That's an official acknowledgment, and we fully expect that to happen. I don't think there's gonna be any problem with that.

In the meantime, the university will not be able to accept transfer students or credits, nor will students be able to use UATX credits toward a degree at another university, if they want to transfer. Accreditation also plays a part in applying to graduate programs or interviewing for jobs after graduation.

Yvonne Espinoza, an Austin-based college counselor and the CEO/founder of Yvonne Espinoza College Counseling Services, said that lack of accreditation may raise concerns for parents and students she works with.

They still do not have accreditation, which would be the biggest concern for students and families in general who want to make sure that the degree they receive is going to translate into a job [or] grad school, she told BestColleges.

The students and families I have worked with over the years care a lot about reputation — that there's a history and a track record there of success and of students being employed or students going on to grad school. They want to see that return on investment when considering the pursuit of higher education.

Howland said that UATX has been in conversation with several institutions — including Pepperdine University, the University of Dallas, and Hillsdale College — to create memorandums of understanding to consider UATX students for graduate programs while the university works toward getting accredited.

UATX is also hoping to build a relationship with the University of Texas, allowing students at each university to take courses at the other institution.

The school is also planning to leverage its Talent Network, UATX's version of a college career center, to set students up for success in the workplace.

Our students are going to be job-ready. It is a common complaint of employers that students simply aren't ready for their work. And a lot of them, especially from elite schools, don't really understand what it means to have a job ... a sort of immaturity in terms of not quite understanding what is required, Howland explained.

Our students are going to have all of that and more because they will be working with the Talent Network ... that's got to count as much, I think, as accreditation — the idea that you will be ideally prepared for working in an established employer, being a good employee, or starting your own business is going to give people a lot of confidence.

Federal Financial Aid Not Available — for Now

Since it was announced in November 2021, UATX has insisted it is ... building a financial model that does not rely on public funding, and will not accept federal funds that would tie it to the federal government's expectations and requirements.

Eligibility for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, would be affected if the school decided against accepting federal funds.

Tuition, fees, and personal expenses for students who don’t receive any financial aid or scholarships are expected to be over $58,000 per year, including $32,500 in annual tuition, according to UATX.

But Howland told BestColleges that now that the school is getting off the ground, it is also considering whether it will apply for federal funding once it's eligible.

The issue, he said, is the strings that come attached to such funding, pointing to Hillsdale College, which does accept federal funds.

We're going to make that decision down the way because we might have a financial model ... that might make it unnecessary for us to do that, Howland said. But that's just a bridge we have not crossed yet.

'It Isn’t for Everyone, But It Might Just Be for You'

One of the main missions of UATX is to structure the school in such a way as to champion what the founders believe is missing in higher education: freedom of thought and the ability for faculty and staff to speak their minds without self-censoring.

The [UATX] constitution ... really tries to enshrine and guarantee academic freedom, free and open inquiry, and civil discourse in the classroom and among the faculty, Asoli said.

Howland added: Academic freedom means you can advance an opinion, the opinion should be relevant to what you’re talking about, as long as you are willing to argue for the opinion and entertain counterarguments.

One way the university will ensure that students can express themselves freely is to restrict device use and impose strict consequences, up to expulsion, for students who speak about someone else's opinion outside the classroom, Howland said.

You can talk about what was said in your class, but you cannot attribute an opinion to a person by name. ... This classroom truly is a safe space, not the way it is usually construed ... but a space where you can actually say what you believe and you have no fear that you are going to pay a penalty for it. That’s going to allow instructors, as well as students, to speak frankly, he said.

Espinoza advises that many students and parents may be cautious of such a new program, despite the draw of free tuition for the founding class.

My take is that it's so new, it's still something that a lot of students and parents are skeptical of. Even if their education would be fully funded, that still would not be enough incentive for a lot of families I work with to pursue or consider [the university] as a realistic option for their students.

Howland emphasized that UATX isn't looking for the typical student, who keeps their opinions to themselves and sails through college in the traditional fashion. UATX is actively searching for students who want to build their futures from the ground up.

These founders, they are going to be building this thing with us.