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By Dr. Juliet V. García
Presented to the UT System Board of Regents Academic Affairs Committee
November 11, 2009

What are we going to do with all of these Hispanics? That was the question on everyone’s mind at a meeting I attended with a Harvard demographer as he was talking about the explosive growth of the Hispanic population in the United States. 

The UT System has already offered its answer. We’ve decided to educate them by establishing regional UT universities in the communities where they reside, to provide them the same high quality opportunities provided others elsewhere in the state, and to hold us accountable for making sure these students are successful; that they enroll, they progress and graduate, and that they do this in a reasonable amount of time.

Good morning Regents, Chancellor Cigarroa, Dr. Prior, fellow Presidents and colleagues.

It is my pleasure to share with you a thinly sliced view of a fundamental change in our core policy at UT Brownsville regarding the manner in which we measure a student’s Satisfactory Academic Progress. It has altered our course in a very significant way and is good cause for reflection.

Federal regulations require universities to establish policies to monitor the academic progress of students who apply for or receive financial aid. Universities are allowed to devise their own individual policy for satisfactory academic progress, hereafter referred to as SAP.

SAP standards are important to students because they determine whether or not a student is eligible to receive federal funding for financial aid. SAP standards are important to universities because they can determine whether or not vast numbers of students have access to federal PELL grant dollars or loans. And in the case of UT Brownsville, where 60% of our students qualify for federal PELL dollars, SAP standards can determine the nature of a major revenue stream for the business side of how a university operates. Finally, SAP standards are important to the regions where universities reside because they determine the nature of the population in a region that will have access to higher education.

In the fall of 2007, we installed revised SAP standards. I have been asked to speak to you today about the impact of that decision now two years later.

UT Austin is worried about what to do with so many top 10% students at their door. Many of those top 10% students come from the Rio Grande Valley. The crème of the crop is routinely recruited not only by UT Austin, but also by MIT, Notre Dame, Stanford, and many others.

But the real problem for the state of Texas is not only about the top 10%. The real problem is about the 90% left behind. Any economist will tell you that it going to take much more than the top 10% of the population to sustain the other 90%, if they’re left behind.

We need them; we need them educated, biliterate, and with skills that can transcend state and national borders. We need them to run and expand our businesses and invent new ones. We need them to teach our children and to design our homes. We need them to care for us when we’re ill and to perform life-giving transplant surgery. 

So for those of us in the UT System that are considered regional universities, our job could be characterized as “heavy lifting.”

Just as a child cannot choose their parents, the challenge for a regional university is that it must succeed predominantly with the students who are born or raised in the region. UT Tyler draws from east Texas, UT Permian Basin from the vast Texas planes, and UT Brownsville from one of the fastest growing regions in the state of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley. And while every year we become a bit more cosmopolitan in our student body with chess players coming to us from Russia and Peru, physics students from Germany and California, and soccer players from Brazil and Ireland; it is still the case today that 92% of our students come from the RGV.

You all know the characteristics of the RGV. We’re fast growing, but undereducated. The children in our schools meet all of the federal criteria for students at risk; they are learning English as a second language; their parents did not graduate from college, and they did not often graduate from high school.

Yet the children in our region are winning international chess tournaments by the hundreds.  Even though UT Brownsville is a mere 18 years old, we’re ranked 8th in the nation of top producers of baccalaureate degrees awarded to Hispanics in mathematics; 6th in the nation of top producers of master’s degrees awarded to Hispanics in mathematics; and 16th in the nation of top producers of master’s degrees awarded to Hispanics in English Language and Literature. (Diverse Issues in Higher Education)

In addition, our graduates are passing their state teachers exams at an average of 95%; and in music, we hold the record for the only program that has had a 100% passing rate from its inception…woe to student that breaks that record. And finally, UT Brownsville was ranked among the top three academic institutions in the state of Texas in research and development expenditures in aerospace technology. (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board)

What is really spectacular is that this is being done for the most part without the benefit of a student body that is majority top 10% and with an open admissions policy. As a matter of fact, only 7% of our first-time, fulltime freshmen this year graduated in the top 10% of their class.

Essential to this is what happens once students get on campus; the short of it is that they are expected to make satisfactory academic progress toward a degree and are held accountable for their performance or their lack of it.

Everyday 80% of our students are making Satisfactory Academic Progress toward a degree. But two years ago, our attention focused not on them, but on the 20% that were not. A faculty committee took on the task of studying how to best compress time to graduation. As the work of the faculty progressed, they identified some disturbing trends. It takes longer for our students to graduate. The majority attend part-time, they work too many hours outside of the university, and they drop too many courses. They also take up expensive seats in freshman classes that could go to others. If they drop that class after a few weeks, that seat stays empty for the rest of the semester. They also borrow too much money. The picture becomes quite grim if they neither make progress toward a degree at the same time that they’re borrowing money, and they dig a deeper and deeper hole of indebtedness. With a low GPA that could continue over multiple semesters, these students have little likelihood of ever making an academic recovery. They finally drop out for good, taking their accumulated debt with them and no credential to show for the time they spent at the University.

All schools have SAP policies they use for financial aid eligibility which address both GPAs and completion rates.  The policy that we used for academic standing, like most universities, only addressed GPAs. This resulted in two issues: using two policies - one for financial aid status and for another academic standing - caused confusion among faculty and staff, not to mention among students. Also, it allowed students who were not completing a significant number of hours they attempted, to continue to enroll in classes without making much progress.

Linked to this was the concern of indebtedness. Brownsville was recently ranked as the most impoverished city of its size in the nation (2007 American Community Survey). Therefore, not surprisingly, almost 60% of our students are eligible to receive the PELL grant. However, because PELL grants have failed to keep up with the actual costs of attending college, our financially needy students were borrowing more each year to make ends meet. In fact, in 2008, students borrowed 1 ½ times the amount of money distributed through the PELL program.

We sought a solution that would guide our students toward graduation more rapidly and away from excessive loan indebtedness. We wanted a policy that would set clear, attainable expectations, and that encouraged responsible behavior.

The first step we took was to align the academic SAP policy to match the policy used to establish financial aid eligibility. It was very simple; students would need to earn a 2.0 GPA and complete 70% of their attempted courses to remain in good academic standing and be eligible to receive federal financial aid. However, if a student does not meet SAP standards after one semester, a student is placed on probation. The students on probation can still receive financial assistance for one semester, but they must achieve SAP standards during that semester in order to remove their probationary status and return to good standing.

If the student does not bring up her GPA to a 2.0 or completion rate of 70% of the hours attempted for the semester while on probation, the student will be suspended. While on suspension, students may not enroll in classes. They must sit out a long semester, and hopefully use that time to resolve any issues that may have prevented them from dedicating themselves to serious studying. After having sat out for a semester, they may return to enroll once again. However, they will only be allowed to register for seven credit hours for that first semester after having been on suspension, they must meet with an advisor to select the appropriate classes, and they must participate in other programs designed to get them on track. Once a student returns and demonstrates the ability to meet the SAP guidelines, the student will once again be considered in good standing and therefore eligible for financial aid.

To help students meet the revised SAP standards, we installed several new initiatives, and I’ll just review a few. We made a university-wide commitment to improving student access to academic advising through the more formal process in the Advising Center, but also in the classroom. Similar to other campuses with limited resources, the student-to-advisor ratio on our campus is dramatically inadequate. But with a simplified uniform policy, all of us could become advisors on SAP. We launched a comprehensive communication campaign to inform students of the new standards and the consequences of dropping courses.

We redesigned Freshman Orientation to include topics such as study skills, time management and academic expectations. We made Freshman Orientation mandatory. We added tutoring sections, expanded an already robust supplemental instruction initiative and created more on-campus jobs for students, not making copies or running errands, but working in labs with faculty. If a student is placed on probation, we designed a contract to be signed by students making a commitment to attend advising sessions prior to registering for the next term. To insure that this happens, we limit on-line registration to only those who have been advised. And finally, we realigned all scholarships to the new SAP standards.

Two years after implementation of the new academic standards, we have cautious grounds for optimism.

But allow me first to outline the negative impacts that have occurred as a result of the new SAP policy. We have had an increase in number of students on probation. At the end of the first term under our new SAP criteria, 2,154 students were placed on probation. This was the 20% of the population that we had expected. Since then we’ve averaged about 1,500 students on probation every semester. We have also had an increase in the number of students on suspension – a total of 3,162 students, which we lost for a semester.

SAP had a dramatic impact, as you might imagine, on our budget. The first year we lost $2 million.  In FY 2009, we lost another $1.2 million for a cumulative loss of $3.2 million from our operating budget. To compensate for the lost revenue, we froze the hiring of new faculty, filled only ‘crucial’ positions that were vacant, reduced the number of sections taught and reduced spending of M&O accounts. We also installed SAP during a non-counting year so as to minimize loss of future revenue. We believe that increased enrollment growth in FY2010 and state funding will cover future deficits. We presented a budget this year that is not in deficit, so we have made it through the toughest two years.

And finally, the SAP revisions have increased the amount of work university-wide with new efforts focused on new initiatives: new work for advisors, new work for faculty and new work for those tasked with generating data for further study.

But there has been a very positive impact, as well. Since the inception of the more rigorous standards, the number of credit hours successfully completed has risen from 79% in Spring of 2006 to 83% in the Spring of 2009. Second, the number of hours failed has dropped. In 2006, students were dropping 12.5% of their credit hours each semester. Today it’s 10.8%. Students have also withdrawn from fewer classes.  In 2006, students withdrew from 8.6% of their credit hours, now they’re dropping only 5.5%.

But much more has happened than this slight incremental progress. Peer expectations have grown. New students accepted the new SAP criteria automatically; previously enrolled students woke up… there was a cultural shift. Faculty claim that more students are attending class and keeping up with their assignments. There are early signs that time-to-graduation will decrease and students will accumulate less debt.

A clear signal has been sent to area schools about the academic expectations for graduating seniors. We have begun experimenting with additional initiatives such as linking courses and expanding learning communities. There has been a positive internal campus community response, such as support from the SGA president. And there has been a positive external community response that ranged from “Why hadn’t you done this before” to “It’s about time.”

I’ve already mentioned that our institution serves one of the poorest regions in the United States, but it is also true that our region is one of the fastest growing in the country. You could close all the bridges going south today and stop all in-migration from our neighbors to the north, but the fact remains that the nature of our population will still result in rapid growth over the next three decades. We cannot stop the growth. But we do have a choice either to succeed with more students and produce more college educated and productive citizens or to simply grow. Grow smart or just grow. We decided to grow smart.

One additional positive outcome of SAP that I haven’t mentioned is that since SAP was implemented, we have had an increase of 3% more students taking upper-division courses. This is the equivalent of close to 72 more upper division students. This represents many more students, then, who are successfully scooting through the pipeline and are that much closer to graduation.

Every year our graduation rate grows. Every year, the quality of our graduates increases as measured by, for example, state exit exams for teachers, such as the 100% passing rates in music and mathematics I’ve mentioned, and state exams for nurses. Every year our chess team rises a bit higher in the ranking - this last year placing third by beating the Stanford team in the prestigious Pan Am Games in the last few minutes of a 4-hour chess match. There is nothing wrong with the human capital on the border and in South Texas that can’t be realized with a bit of opportunity.

Our mission as a community university states that all are accepted; no one is excluded from the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations. But once on campus, they must be held to the same rigor as we would expect on a selective admissions campus. We believe the new SAP policy helps us achieve that.

We still have a lot to learn about the impact of this policy. We intend to continue to recalibrate its implementation. By the very nature of our institution, we do not “fit the mold” of the more traditional state university in Texas. So we do not profess to have discovered the model that will improve student success for everyone. There are also limits to what we can do, given the modesty of our resources, but on the whole, we believe we made the right decision. Our job remains to manage the process during a fiscally challenging transition.

As Chancellor Cigarroa pointed out in his Vision for the System, one-fourth of the UT System’s student population, that is 55,000 students, reside on the border between El Paso and Brownsville. Success in the border region is clearly essential if the State is to meet the goals set by THECB in their Closing the Gaps report. Their goal is that all Texans attend college at a rate of 5.7% by 2015. As of 2008, the State-wide Hispanic rate is lagging at 4%.

But there is good news. If you recall the book, Good to Great, one of the characteristics of a great company is one that is moving counter-trend. The Rio Grande Valley is going counter-trend. We have met and surpassed the goals of the Coordinating Board in participation of Hispanics in Higher Education.

It is a real privilege to serve you as President of UTB. I thank you for your time.



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