University of Tennessee System will guarantee admission to top high school graduates starting next fall

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Dakota Hodges, admissions counselor, speaks to students at Bradley Central High School about the University of Tennessee on Wednesday.

Top seniors at public and private high schools in Tennessee will be guaranteed a spot at any University of Tennessee System campus they apply to under a new policy approved by the UT board of trustees Friday.

Under the policy, which goes into effect for students applying to start school in fall 2024, applicants will need to meet admissions deadlines and one of three criteria:

— Finish in the top 10% of their graduating class.

— Achieve a 4.0 or higher GPA.

— Achieve a 3.2 or higher GPA and a composite ACT score of 23 or higher or an SAT score of 1130-1150 or higher (although this criteria is not valid at the main campus in Knoxville).

These criteria are assessed based on a student's transcript at the end of their junior year.

UT President Randy Boyd said in a video call with the Chattanooga Times Free Press ahead of the board's vote he hoped the policy would bust the myth that it's too hard to get accepted to a UT campus.

"We're excited about this. We think it's going to result in increases in Tennesseans coming to our campuses," Boyd said. "We also think it's going to help us better reflect the diversity within our state."

He also said the criteria will give students a target to work toward, he said.

(READ MORE: University of Tennessee encourages students to apply for expanded free-tuition program)

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Bradley Central High Schools band performs at a pep rally Wednesday with visiting dignitaries from the University of Tennessee.

In 1997, a similar law in Texas guaranteed students who graduated in the top 10% of their high school class automatic admission to the state university of their choice. The law was later amended to increase the threshold for automatic admission for the University of Texas at Austin in order to ensure 25% of students were admitted through a holistic review process.

Boyd hopes the UT system program will increase the number of students who achieve a score of 30 or higher on the ACT who attend a university in Tennessee, as well as the number of applications from students at rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged schools, he said.

He cited a 2018 study about Texas' guaranteed admissions program, which found that top 10% eligibility was associated with a 16-percentage-point increase in the probability of applying to a flagship campus for high-income, highly qualified students and a 22-percentage-point increase for similar low-income students.

"We want a higher percentage of those, and we're thinking if we can let them know earlier, it'll give us an advantage," Boyd said.

(READ MORE: UTC welcomes thousands of students for the first day of classes)

Other research suggests the Texas law has done little to increase diversity at the state's flagship universities — the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M.

A 2020 study found that most high schools that did not regularly send students to the two universities before the law's implementation continued to not send students. Meanwhile, students from high-achieving high schools continued to comprise more than 90% of the students from Texas public high schools on the two campuses. The researchers also said the plan did not recover the racial diversity lost by Texas' ban of affirmative action.

The new policy guarantees admittance to a University of Tennessee System campus but not to a particular college, school, department, major or program. Additionally, all applicants will still need to submit their ACT or SAT score, and Knoxville campus applicants are required to have a minimum score of 19 on the math and English sections of the ACT.

Contact Shannon Coan at or 423-757-6396.