This story was originally published by Washington Monthly. It is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
In a world of skyrocketing college tuition and spiraling student debt, the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) is resolutely affordable.
Located in Edinburg, Texas, an hour from the U.S.-Mexico border, UTRGV is a new school formed in 2013 from a merger of new campuses and legacy institutions. It enrolls a student body that is more than 90 percent Hispanic and heavily first-generation. The school’s mascot is the workingman Vaquero, Spanish for “cowboy” or “cattle driver,” who dons full ranching attire, including gloves, scarf and boots. Designed by students, the mascot’s costume is full of subtle messaging, like blue-stitching on the vaquero’s boots to symbolize the Rio Grande river joining Mexico and the U.S.
More than 60 percent of students at UTRGV have incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants. Yet, says President Guy Bailey, “Over half of our students who are undergraduates don’t pay any tuition or fees. Most of our students who qualify for Pell grants pay nothing.”
In addition to Pell, the state-funded TEXAS grant provides up to $5,195 per semester to in-state students attending Texas public universities. UTRGV closes the gap with its own Tuition Advantage program, which covers remaining tuition and fees for families with incomes up to $100,000 (a cap set to rise this year and one met by few families in this poor region). The school guarantees tuition levels for four years, so there’s no “surprise billing.” In 2019-20, the average net cost to attend was $917 — less than 12 percent of the $7,907 price tag for flagship UT-Austin.
“With first-generation low-income students, you have to start with finance,” says Bailey, who was himself a first-generation student. “A lot of kids don’t graduate because they just run out of money.”
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The press tends to focus on the failures of higher education, including especially the low graduation rates, poor outcomes and massive debts at schools with large numbers of low-income enrollees. Yet hundreds of post-secondary schools — like UTRGV — are doing right by their students, providing a quality education at a reasonable price. Institutions like these, the majority of which are regional public colleges and minority-serving institutions, are also addressing income inequality by creating economic opportunity, as a new report from the think tank Third Way concludes.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, UTRGV ranks among the nation’s top five schools for promoting economic mobility. The four others are all in California and Texas, with sizable Hispanic enrollments: California State University-Los Angeles, California State University-Dominguez Hills, Texas A&M and California State University-Bakersfield. (All of these schools also rank highly in Washington Monthly’s College Guide, which eschews prestige-based metrics in favor of economic mobility and national service.)
Third Way’s report, authored by Senior Fellow Michael Itzkowitz, ranked the nation’s four-year colleges based on the proportion of students receiving Pell grants, the cost of attendance and students’ expected earnings after graduation. What emerged was a list of institutions that both enrolled high numbers of low- and moderate-income students and provided them a good return on their investment. What might be surprising, says Itkowitz, is how poorly some of the nation’s best-known colleges perform on this measure. Harvard, for instance, ranks 847, while Stanford ranks 548. Many state flagships also rank poorly; the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, is 701st for economic mobility, while the University of Michigan is at 535. (UT-Austin ranks 347.)
“While the fortunate few who get into these institutions are very, very likely to receive a strong economic return, there’s just such a limited number of low- and moderate-income students who attend these institutions in the first place,” says Itzkowitz. At Harvard, for instance, just 11.6 percent of undergraduate students are Pell recipients, as are only 16.7 percent of students at Stanford.
The Cal State schools atop Third Way’s rankings, on the other hand, serve majorities and super-majorities of Pell students. In fact, says Itzkowitz, the top ten schools in his analysis enrolled more than 95,000 Pell students in 2019-20 — more than six times the total enrolled by the nation’s most rejective (i.e., “selective”) institutions. “While it’s common to see your private elite Ivy-League schools mentioned in news stories, it’s other schools that are actually delivering on the promise [of economic mobility] for exponentially more students,” says Itzkowitz.
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions also dominate Third Way’s rankings, which Itzkowitz attributes to these schools enrolling large numbers of low-income students and, in some states, benefiting from generous state funding.
North Carolina’s Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) — the top-ranked HBCU in Itzkowitz’s analysis — is one of three schools designated under the state’s tuition subsidy program, NC Promise. In-state students attending NC Promise colleges pay just $500 in tuition per semester, while out-of-state students pay $2,500. In contrast, in-state tuition at the flagship UNC-Chapel Hill runs $7,019 and $34,882 for out-of-state tuition.
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Affordability is, however, only part of the equation. The top-ranked schools in the Third Way report also excel in helping their graduates land well-paying jobs, which university leaders attribute to their schools’ strong ties to their communities and a deep understanding of their students’ needs. UTRGV President Guy Bailey, for instance, says his students receive extensive academic advising services (often from former first-generation students) and access to work opportunities on campus. (“If you can work on campus rather than going to McDonald’s or Walmart or something like that, we can work with you better to ensure that you can get your classes and work done,” Bailey says.) As one result, more than 80 percent of first-year students return for their second year, putting UTRGV near the top in the University of Texas system for student retention.
ECSU, meanwhile, works with local, regional and national employers, so students have a pipeline into jobs the minute they graduate. For example, the school’s aviation science program, which is unique in the state, entered a partnership with United Airlines in 2020 that has already placed multiple graduates. “They’re not just looking for my flight students,” Chancellor Karrie Dixon told New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey at an event last October. “They’re looking for students in accounting and finance and business. … They’re looking at the entire operation at United Airlines and having our students have opportunities for employment.”
The presence of schools like UTRGV and ECSU is great news for higher education and lower-income students. “There are a lot of institutions that aren’t featured in mainstream media that are serving students extremely well,” says Third Way’s Itzkowitz.
On the other hand, the continued dominance of a handful of exclusionary schools in popular college rankings and in Washington policymaking is worrisome. Affordable, high-quality schools might not continue to get the resources they need to sustain their work. Students enamored of brand-name schools might overlook the excellent but unsung institutions in their own backyards, and other institutions might miss valuable lessons about how to improve their practices. Ideologically driven battles over the admissions criteria and campus culture of elite schools obscure the bigger issues the majority of America’s students need to get ahead. Far too many schools that serve low-income and first-generation students aren’t like UTRGV or ECSU. At nearly a third of the nation’s colleges, more than half of students end up earning less than a high school graduate, according to a new report from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce.
But the tide could be turning. In addition to alternative rankings like the ones produced by Washington Monthly and Third Way, newly announced Carnegie Classifications for higher education institutions will also reflect schools’ performance on social and economic mobility. Measuring what matters could ultimately improve everyone’s game and bring about badly needed reform.
“American higher education needs to restructure itself, understanding that its past is not going to be its future,” says UTRGV President Guy Bailey. “We have to rethink what we do, and I think you start with students and what they need.”