Diversity and Democracy

UTB 2.0: A Case Study in Reinvention for the Twenty-First Century

Twenty-five years ago, I attended a meeting at which a Harvard demographer predicted the explosive growth of the Hispanic population in the United States. Now, in the twenty-first century, there are more than a million Mr. and Ms. Garcías in the United States, making it the eighth most popular name in America. Six out of ten of all American Hispanics were born right here in the United States, so as my husband often says when people start talking about the border wall, "It's too late! We're already here." And for the next two decades, each month, fifty thousand American Hispanics will turn eighteen years old (Resurgent Republic 2012).

Will they grow up healthy or plagued by diabetes and heart disease? Will they be prepared academically to go to college or will they become high school dropouts? Will there be medical schools and graduate programs awaiting them with open doors, or will they continue to vie for just a few slots designated for students from minority-serving institutions?

In Texas's Rio Grande Valley, home of The University of Texas at Brownsville (UT Brownsville), these questions are not theoretical. Our student population is 94 percent Hispanic and three-fourths first-generation college students. In the two decades since UT Brownsville was established, we have doubled the number of degree programs offered, doubled the number of faculty, doubled student enrollment, and tripled the number of degrees conferred annually. But as impressive as this is, the region's population continues to outpace the university's growth. By the year 2025, nearly one-quarter of the nation's college-age population will be Latino. Excelencia in Education estimates that in order to meet President Obama's graduation goals, five million more Latinos must earn college diplomas or certificates by 2020 than had earned them by 2010 (Excelencia in Education 2013).

Recognizing the importance of this defining moment for our nation, The University of Texas (UT) System has decided what it intends to do with all of these Latinos. We're going to educate them. To that end, UT System leaders have made significant personal and financial commitments to plant a larger flag in South Texas and expand opportunities for students to earn a high-quality education. They have challenged UT Brownsville to take the lead in innovation to ensure that this happens.

So at UT Brownsville, we are reinventing ourselves. We know that our region cannot afford for us to spend the next two decades managing activities that will reap only incremental change for a few. Instead, we will answer the chancellor's charge to create a new model of higher education for the twenty-first century. We have engaged national thought leaders to mine the very best practices in higher education, and we will move quickly to install those that make the most sense for us. We have also been studying our own most successful initiatives, dissecting them, and trying to understand what would make them scalable for thousands of students.

New Bachelor's Degree in Biomedicine

Imagine showing up on a college campus as a freshman and immediately being assigned four new best friends and a faculty mentor with whom you meet each week—a learning community cohort and a support system to keep you connected and on track towards your degree.

Now imagine completing an undergraduate degree without attending one lecture course. After conducting your readings and prep work online, you come to campus to engage in problem-based learning, using medical case studies that demonstrate the relevance of undergraduate science and math courses. Also imagine that your coursework is modular and competency-based: you can move quickly through the parts of the curriculum that you grasp easily and spend more time on areas you find more difficult. And then imagine if that bachelor's degree prepared you to transition easily to medical school or to graduate school.

In fall 2012, we launched a unique bachelor's degree in biomedicine with just these characteristics. The degree opens pathways to careers in medicine, research, biology and biomedical technology. It is designed to increase retention, accelerate time-to-graduation, reduce costs to students, and increase the number of undergraduate Latino students prepared for graduate and medical education.

To welcome the first class into the biomedical program, I attended the special white coat ceremony traditionally reserved for medical students. The event took place in a large lecture hall filled with family members gathered to support their freshmen, who sat together in the front rows as if being initiated into a secret fraternity. Escorted onto the small stage one by one, they were received by the faculty, who placed a white lab coat on their shoulders—as though bestowing the mantle of knowledge itself, or at least the responsibility to seek the mantle of knowledge. Parents hovered close to the stage hugging each other and taking photographs to commemorate the moment.

After the students had returned to their seats, they stood to recite a pledge. To the more jaded academic, this might have appeared a bit corny, but I must admit that it appeared a bit magical, too. It was as if repeating the promise to study hard to prepare to be the next generation of scientists and physicians was in itself requisite to having it become true. When the students turned and faced the audience, I watched with great delight as even the most cynical faculty member stood a bit taller, a bit prouder for having accepted personal responsibility for ensuring that these students would individually and collectively suceed.

Next fall, the new biomedical degree will become part of the UT System's Transformation In Medical Education (TIME) program. About one-third of the students who enter our biomedical degree program will be selected for the TIME Academy, an accelerated program that will enable them to complete the first three years of their undergraduate degree at UT Brownsville, UT Pan American, or UT El Paso and the last three years of the program at medical schools in the UT System—earning a medical degree in just six years.

Texas lags far behind the national average at 165 doctors for every one hundred thousand residents compared to the national average of 240 doctors for every one hundred thousand residents. In the twelve counties of the Rio Grande Valley, there are only 124 doctors for every one hundred thousand residents (University of Texas System 2013).

What would it mean to our communities if, instead of taking eight years to produce a physician, we could help students complete their medical degrees in six years—without compromising quality? What if, while increasing efficiency by improving retention, we were growing the number of Latino students prepared to succeed in medical school or graduate education and enter the health care systems of the twenty-first century? And what if, at the same time, our efforts significantly lowered student debt by increasing the probability of success and decreasing the time to degree?

Integrated Tutoring

Nationwide, learning communities have been shown to build community, raise the quality of learning, increase student retention, and accelerate time to graduation. However, they can be costly and difficult to scale up.

We have experimented with many types of learning communities, but none has demonstrated a more direct impact on course pass rates than integrated tutoring. Four years ago, with funding from a Title V federal grant, we implemented a pilot program with a simple design. When students sign up for one of several freshman-level classes with integrated tutoring, they agree to attend a non-credit peer-directed tutoring session linked to each course and scheduled either immediately before or after each class meeting.

So how has it worked? In each case, integrated tutoring has significantly improved the percentage of students who pass the course. In English I, the pass rate improved from 52 to 69 percent; in algebra, from 55 to 70 percent; in history, from 47 to 73 percent; and in Chemistry II, from 55 to 86 percent. In addition, withdrawal rates from those courses were significantly lower in the experimental group (3 percent) than in a control group (10 percent). Finally, overall GPAs were slightly higher in the experimental group (2.42) than in the control group (2.38). One organic chemistry professor whose class participated in the model said that students with integrated tutoring achieved the highest test scores in the history of the course's existence at UT Brownsville.

The integrated tutoring model worked with four hundred students. In fall 2013, we will experiment with scaling up this practice with the goal of offering all freshman-level classes in this enhanced manner.

Student Employment Initiative

Most UT Brownsville students must work to pay for their education, three-fourths of our students qualify for federal Pell grants, three-fourths are from the first generation in their families to attend college, and one-fifth attend part-time. These circumstances all increase the likelihood that students will take and complete less than a full course load every semester or "stop out" to handle life's interruptions, decreasing their probability of graduating on time or at all.

To help students meet their financial needs and stay connected to campus, we developed another program that has shown impressive impact on student success: the Student Employment Initiative (SEI). The program, which serves about two hundred participants each year, requires students to enroll in at least fifteen semester credit hours per term and maintain a GPA of at least 2.75. Participating students gain placement in meaningful jobs that relate to their major, where they conduct research, intern, mentor underclassmen, and receive mentoring themselves.

Over the last three years, the 396 students in the pilot program have surpassed all expectations and program requirements. On average, SEI students completed 14.9 semester credit hours per term (99 percent of attempted hours), maintained a cumulative GPA of 3.2, and were retained at 98 percent. Eighty-three percent of participants have graduated in less than six years, and 43 percent completed their degrees in four years or less—graduation rates that are comparable to many more selective institutions in the UT System.

What if every student at UT Brownsville was able to achieve similar results while working on campus? We are currently exploring ways to make this possible.

Sustaining our Democracy

When I was a new president, the president of Miami–Dade College told me that the most important part of his job was to sustain the democracy of the United States. I told him I didn't understand. He explained that his job was to educate the next generation of native Floridians, Cubans, or Haitians, and that if he did that well, his students would become vested in the American democracy and would nurture, defend, and sustain it. Decades later, I am still convinced that in that conversation, I discovered the most important nature of my own job as well.

There is nothing wrong with the human capital of the Rio Grande Valley that a bit of opportunity can't solve. Students come to us having inherited their parents' hopes of achieving the American Dream—that they might contribute not only to the well-being of their own families, but also to that of a nation revered for its history of opening doors. There is no greater allegiance than to a country that has offered you a leg up—not a handout, but an opportunity to study hard, work hard, contribute to the well-being of others, and succeed.

Working collaboratively across the entire educational ecosystem in the Rio Grande Valley, with support from local business leaders, national thought leaders, and philanthropic organizations, we are asking: Can we make more of a difference collectively? Can we gain momentum working in unison aimed in the same direction? Can we take successful programs scattered throughout our region and bring them to scale? And are we limited by just how revolutionary these models might be? How creative? How productive? How extraordinarily new?

We cannot afford to be remembered for those we excluded. Instead, we must be remembered for those we included, those who are working to make their generation the one that ends the vicious cycle of illiteracy and poverty. The fate of our children and of our country lies not in the past, but in its future—and the future is in our hands.

Angela K. McCauley contributed to the writing of this article.


Excelencia in Education. 2013. "Workforce." http://edexcelencia.org/EAF/workforce.

Resurgent Republic. 2012. "50,500,000 Hispanics Live In America: Get to Know the Nation's Changing Electorate." http://www.hispanicvoters2012.com/.

University of Texas System. 2013. "A New University in South Texas: Key Points." http://www.utb.edu/president/Emails/documents/South-Texas-University-Key-Points-FINAL-1-24-13.pdf.

Juliet V. García is president of The University of Texas at Brownsville.

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