Texas needs to do more to help Hispanic students graduate from college, university leaders say

Serving Hispanic Students in Texas

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When it comes to finishing a higher education program, Hispanic students in Texas lag behind the state average.

Statewide, 23% of all eighth grade students go on to complete some form of higher education, according to the latest data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which last tracked student outcomes in 2008. When that segment is sorted by race, 31% of white students complete some form of higher education. Only 18% of Hispanic students do the same.

However, the success of Hispanic students is higher and closer to the state average in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso regions, which have a large Hispanic population in both primary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education. About 23% of Hispanic students complete some form of higher education in the Valley region; that number is 21% in El Paso.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley President Guy Bailey, who joined other higher education leaders at a Texas Tribune event in Brownsville on Tuesday to discuss how the state can support Hispanic students, said those numbers show the value of understanding students’ communities.

“What that reflects more than anything is the value system of the Rio Grande Valley,” Bailey said. “We have people who value higher education, our communities, our students, and they’ve been terrific to work with.”

Jacob Fraire, director of policy and strategy at the Diana Natalicio Institute for Hispanic Student Success at the University of Texas at El Paso, said the percentage of Hispanics completing some form of higher education in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley is good, but there’s still work to be done. Going deeper in the data, for instance, shows disparities between the percentage of Hispanic males and females getting a degree or a certificate, he said. Statewide, about 14% of Hispanic males complete some form of higher education compared to 22% of Hispanic females.

And while the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso regions are performing well, the goal is to raise the number of Hispanic students who complete a higher education program statewide. As Texas’ Hispanic population continues to boom, Hispanic Serving Institutions — universities or colleges where Hispanics make up at least 25% of the student population — are being tasked with helping these students succeed.

The student population at UTRGV is about 90% Hispanic; it’s about 84% at UTEP.

Juliet García, former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, said she believes what sets El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley apart is that institutions in these regions are responsive to the students they are serving. But, like Fraire, García said she believes Hispanic Serving Institutions have lacked resources like money and support to add more degree plans.

“We are different in the fact that we have had neglect and lack of opportunity,” García said. “We’re catching up.”

While higher-education leaders need to come up with ways to help Hispanic students succeed, the Legislature needs to provide the money for it, Fraire said. During the pandemic, he noted, federal COVID-19 relief funds helped universities give money to struggling students, which in turn helped some of them stay in school. While this was a one-time cash infusion, Fraire said lawmakers should look at how many students were able to succeed academically because of it and consider how they can extend that help.

Some of the success that the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso have seen with Hispanic students comes from removing external factors that can get in the way of their education. Bailey said one of the most important things higher education institutions can do is provide students with on-campus jobs with good pay.

“Having them work on campus is important,” he said. “They’re building a community of support when they do that.”

This fall, UTRGV started covering full tuition and fees for students whose family income is $100,000 or less. It represents an increase to the program’s income threshold, which started at $75,000. UTEP recently raised its free tuition threshold to $75,000.

Another challenge is that some Hispanic students are the first in their families to go to college. Institutions provide a sense of belonging, not just academic support, the university leaders said.

“We’re not just going to bring to you and nourish you and give you a student life experience that your parents would want you to have,” Fraire said. “We want to make sure that you are successful by taking down as many of the barriers that are preventing you from being there.”

Fraire said universities must be aware of the tight-knit family culture that Hispanics have. He said Hispanic families value higher education but they also need to see that the university will be an extension of their family.

García said she remembers recruiting a Hispanic chess player from El Paso years ago whose family told her in Spanish “te la estoy entregando,” which means “I’m putting her in your hands.”

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s right. She thinks that I’m going to know everything that’s going on in the dorm and in the chess team,’” Garcia said. “They assume if they’re bringing their child from Brazil or from Mexico, that you are now taking care of their jobs. So it is a heavy load to embrace.”

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