A Higher Ed Bargain at the Border: By keeping tuition low and offering generous aid to its Hispanic student body, the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley has lessons for the rest of the country.

AuthorKim, Anne

In a world of skyrocketing college tuition and spiraling student debt, the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) is resolutely affordable.

With campuses in Edinburg and Brownsville, 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 joining Mexico and the U.S.

More than 60 percent of students at UTRGV have incomes low enough to qualify for Pell Grants. Yet, President Guy Bailey says, "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 the 2019-20 school year, 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."

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...

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