THE MONITOR STAFF WRITER
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is welcoming 5,827 incoming freshmen this semester — a school record — as it heads into its third straight year with a first day enrollment of more than 32,000.
The university has a record number of doctoral students as well, with 492.
Although enrollment numbers won’t be final until the 12th day of class and the school doesn’t have as many masters program enrollees this semester — likely a postpandemic correction — UTRGV President Guy Bailey said growing enrollment points to something significant: a momentum with an almost snowball-like effect that he says will reshape the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley.
In Bailey’s view, there’s two things driving enrollment growth, the first of which is a cultural shift in the Valley that increasingly makes higher education the norm for locals.
“Education is prized more down here than it’s ever been,” he said. “People have realized the importance of education. Our school districts are doing a really nice job of graduating prepared students…and then parents here have begun to understand the importance of higher education.”
That premise — good education that won’t bankrupt you — has been the steady drumbeat of messaging from the university for the last few years.
In 2019, the university announced its Tuition Advantage grant program, enabling qualifying students with an adjusted gross family income of $75,000 or less to attend UTRGV for free. The next year, the university bumped that threshold up to $95,000.
In 2021, UTRGV rolled out its Luminary Scholars program, a competitive program aimed at keeping exceptional students in the Valley with the lure of free undergraduate education, two years of free housing and free tuition and fees for the professional or undergraduate program to which they are provisionally admitted, including medical programs.
At the same time, the university keeps rolling out new flashy, highprofile programs with such regularity that Bailey half-jokes it’s a struggle for the marketing team.
“They’re trying to keep up with us,” he says.
Most of those programs are products of the med-school.
A podiatry program. An Alzheimer’s disease research center. A cancer and surgery center.
The university describes all of those programs as game changers for local residents and for local students.
“We think that we have organized ourselves to help Valley students be successful,” Bailey said. “We think this is a place where they can come and be at home, and be very successful. So it’s partly
price, it’s partly quality: if you add price and quality together, you get great value, and that’s really what we’re trying to do.”
That value’s paying off for students, Bailey said. On Monday The Washington Monthly released a competing ranking of American colleges to U.S. News & World Report’s traditional list. Washington Monthly pegged UTRGV second in the state, behind Texas A& M but ahead of UT Austin. Bailey said graduation rates have dramatically increased and are higher than they’ve ever been and significantly higher than they were at the university’s legacy institutions, UTPA and UTB.
“It’s one thing to admit students, but the most important thing is to graduate them. I mean, you need to graduate to get that job, to go into that profession,” he said.
What’s the end result of enrollment growth and the factors behind it? Bailey said the answer’s a strong economy and a strong pool of local professionals, along with an associated quality of life improvement for Valley residents.
“One of the things that I think the university’s going to turn into is a major driver of the economic well being and the health of the Valley,” he said. “We think that we can be a major force in driving the economy and the health and the well-being of the Valley.”