JULY 30, 2021 — Enhancing financial assistance programs and confronting racial and socioeconomic inequities are critical to addressing college affordability and student debt challenges, according to research recently released by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the TIAA Institute.
To address these and other challenges, UTSA leaders recently participated in an affordability forum as part of the APLU’s Powered by Publics Initiative.
Together, UTSA and its collaborators defined impactful ways to make college more accessible for the nation’s college students, especially for undergraduates from underrepresented and low socioeconomic communities.
“Research shows that the cost of higher education is the single greatest obstacle to pursuing a college degree,” said UTSA Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly Andrews Espy. “One of the best ways to minimize those costs is to graduate on time. Our work with the APLU and other universities across the country is helping to identify new ways to improve college affordability and lead to greater social mobility and new economic opportunities.”
The APLU’s Powered by Publics Initiative focuses on developing data-informed approaches to increase achievement and success among under-resourced students. It convenes nearly 125 higher education institutions representing three million undergraduate students. The APLU designated UTSA and its nine collaborators as Affordability Fellows. Each institution enrolls a high number of students receiving federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to students with exceptional financial need.
The findings of the Affordability Fellows are compiled in a research brief, “Financial aid innovations for college affordability and mitigating student debt.”
Their brief highlights five innovative programs underway at the institutions: one stop centers; completion and retention grants; institutional debt forgiveness; industry partnerships; and affordable learning materials, including open educational resources. Additionally, the brief includes “Success Highlights” that provide more details on successful programs at the participating universities.
“We are hopeful that as a result of this project, our efforts to remove barriers and enhance financial well-being will continue to evolve so we can support students who dream of attending and graduating from college,” said Tammy Jordan Wyatt, UTSA vice provost for student success.
UTSA shared its Incentive & Retention Grants program as a national model addressing the financial challenges of students. Established in 2018 by the UTSA Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships and its Fiscal Services Office, UTSA’s Incentive & Retention Grants pilot program uses institutional funds to provide grants to students who have balances due and have filed emergency aid, including applications for COVID emergency relief.
The university’s goal is to assist students who have paused their education, are not making progress toward their degree and are in danger of dropping out. The UTSA One Stop Enrollment Center, which assists students with questions about financial aid, manages the program.
UTSA Senior Vice Provost for Strategic Enrollment Lynn Barnes Jr. says the program has prevented a significant number of students from dropping out. The university’s goal now is to further assess the program’s impact, formalize the program and institutionalize the funds. UTSA’s strategic enrollment and student success teams work hand in hand to increase UTSA’s enrollment, retention and graduation rates. Barnes and Wyatt leads these teams and together shared their findings with their APLU working group.
“When we see students who are not finished with their degree and we see that they don’t register within the registration period, that’s an alarm for us,” said Barnes in the brief, adding that registration holds are often a result of students owing money. “We are aggressively working with these students and utilizing our retention grants and incentive funds to help spur students to continue their education and to achieve their professional goals.”
Alcione Frederick, assistant director in APLU’s Center for Public University Transformation, led the association’s research. “The past year has magnified the scale of student financial need and underscored the urgency of addressing it through reform and the development of targeted, multifaceted innovations,” she said. “We know cost barriers disproportionately impact Black, Latinx, first-generation, and low-income students and that the pandemic has exacerbated these long-standing inequities.”
The groups Frederick highlighted account for a large portion of UTSA’s student population. Of the 34,742 students enrolled at UTSA in fall 2020, 57% identified as Hispanic; 8% identified as Black; and 45% will be the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Additionally, 75% of UTSA’s undergraduate students receive financial aid. Of those, 45% are Pell Grant recipients.
These figures underscore the need to make college affordability a high priority to support student success.
“Our student population is historically loan-averse and works multiple jobs so they don’t have to take out loans,” Wyatt said. “Across the nation, there is a need to develop innovative financial strategies to make college more affordable and lower student debt, especially at universities that serve large minority populations, like UTSA.”
Over the past several years, UTSA has launched initiatives to advance the education opportunities of San Antonio’s Hispanic population and other underserved communities. These programs are integral to President Taylor Eighmy’s plan to transform the institution into a model of student success.
The First to Go & Graduate program, which debuted in 2016, develops and supports an institution-wide culture that actively recognizes, encourages and supports first-generation college students, positively impacting first-generation retention and graduation rates.
In 2017, UTSA launched the Resilience and Retention Advising Program, which utilizes intentional, proactive advising practices with students who are high risk of dropping out of college.
The Classroom to Career Initiative, which debuted in 2018, is focused on providing more UTSA students with experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, service learning, undergraduate research and study-abroad programs. With its goal of identifying partnerships, Classroom to Career could be key to UTSA’s work to forge new relationships with local industry players who could help finance students’ education.
In fall 2020, UTSA welcomed its inaugural cohort of students from the Bold Promise Program. The groundbreaking program covers 100% of a first-time freshman’s tuition and fees for four years.
“Innovative financial aid policies and practices are making a tremendous difference in closing the higher education affordability gap,” said Anne Ollen, managing director of the TIAA Institute. She notes that the APLU’s broad research initiative “helped to shine a light on the essential work of college and university financial aid and student affairs professionals, among others who focus on helping students manage the costs of getting to and through degree completion. We need to increase awareness and keep the momentum going.”
The new research expands upon previous briefs examining college affordability landscape and equitable financial innovations, as well as an examination of the disbursement on emergency aid made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Rounding out the Powered by Publics Affordability Fellows were Cleveland State University, Rutgers University-Newark, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Louisville, the University of North Texas, Virginia Commonwealth University, Wayne State University and West Virginia University.
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