The inaugural class of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the result of the merger between UTPA and The University of Texas at Brownsville, is set to enroll in fall 2015. In addition, the accompanying medical school will open one year later. UTPA and University of Texas System administrators predict that enrollment, especially of Rio Grande Valley students, will increase to more than 30,000 with the creation of the new university, but current Valley high schoolers are more skeptical.
According to statistics provided by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, approximately 19,000 students were enrolled at UTPA in fall 2012. However, the University still didn’t have one of the top three enrollment figures among 4-year and 2-year public colleges in the South Texas region.
“I think most high schoolers will still view (the University) as UTPA, even after the merger,” said Janice Montemayor, a senior at Robert Vela High School in Edinburg. “Practically everything is the same except the name. Even after the merger, I think (students) will still want to leave home and go to a college that’s not local and just see something different. They don’t want to be a local all the time.”
According to incoming UTPA freshmen Arturo Rodriguez-Perez, most students attend UTPA as a back-up plan rather than a first choice.
“I think most students want to get out (of the Valley),” said Rodriguez-Perez, a Mexico City native. “Originally, I was going to the University of the Incarnate Word but I’m staying because of family problems and money issues. I only intend to stay for my basic (courses).”
UTPA Provost Havidán Rodriguez hopes that this mentality will change once UTRGV and the accompanying school of medicine open their doors. Rodriguez, who will serve as the interim president of UTPA during the transition year, said one of the aims of the new institution is to attract and retain students in the Valley.
“One of the goals of UTRGV and the UTRGV school of medicine is that we will be able to recruit, attract and retain more students in the Rio Grande Valley and to stay in the Rio Grande Valley, and that UTRGV will be an institution of choice for these students,” said Rodriguez, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “Of course, at the end of the day, students will go where they feel their needs will be met, where they have academic programs they feel comfortable with… but we want to be a real alternative, a real choice for students.”
According to a September 2013 article by The New York Times, colleges closer to a student’s hometown are becoming increasingly popular. In a survey of freshman students pursuing a four-year degree, 20 percent said that being close to home was a very important factor in their college selection process – up 4 percent from the previous year.
For Victoria Lynn Olivares, being close to home was not a very important factor when she applied to college. But her original plans didn’t pan out and like Rodriguez-Perez, she found herself at UTPA.
“It was not my initial plan to stay here in the Valley for college,” said Olivares, an incoming freshmen. “My aspirations were to leave home and start a new life on my own somewhere far away. Things didn’t turn out the way I had planned. However, I was blessed to receive a federal grant if I attended UTPA. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. It took some convincing and a clear state of mind to accept what I could not change and be grateful for everything I had received.”
One of the top reasons students stay home for college is to save money, as stated in a March 2013 article by USA Today. Rodriguez said this will be one of the reasons UTRGV will be a viable college option for local students.
“We live in a region where you have very high levels of poverty,” the provost said. “So providing students with the necessary financial assistance so that (students) can afford to go to the university – that is going to be key in retaining students here.”
In 2013, Brownsville and Harlingen were named the poorest cities in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau and economic website 24/7 Wall St. But while financial reasons may be the initial motivation for students to attend UTRGV, Rodriguez said the university will strive to keep them here with new programs and opportunities.
“One of the things we aim to expand on is the academic and educational experience the students have at the institution,” Rodriguez said. “For example, we’ve been trying to expand student engagement. So having students participate in internships, in undergraduate research, in service learning, and study abroad and honors programs.”
According to the provost, involvement in these types of activities increases retention rates, graduation rates and the probability of going to graduate school. But while student engagement is important, Rodriguez-Perez said there is more to the issue than the campus environment. The Vela High School graduate said his peers often ridiculed UTPA and he believes that there is a stigma attached to attending the University.
“I would make fun of (South Texas College) because it’s like a community college,” Rodriguez-Perez said. “Most people make fun of UTPA because it’s a school that you have to stay here, you have no other place to go to, but I feel like it’s actually a good school.”
Rodriguez is confident this stigma will diminish over time.
“It’s about developing an institute of higher education that will become a model for institutions of higher education across the country. When other institutions across the country start talking about (UTRGV)… it exposes and increases the reach, the visibility and the impact of the institution, not only in the Valley but in the state of Texas and across the country,” the UTPA president ad interim said. “This is going to fundamentally and radically transform the way we do education in the Rio Grande Valley.”