The University of Texas at San Antonio has joined 129 other public universities in a new five-year effort to improve college access for low-income, first generation, and minority students.

The initiative of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) brings together 130 higher-education institutions, divided into 16 study groups to look into how to improve student success. Together, the schools enroll more than 3 million undergraduate students.

The project aims to help schools award hundreds of thousands more degrees by 2025; eliminate the achievement gap for low-income, minority, and first generation students; and share best practices and data among universities with similar student demographics.

“Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a real and growing enthusiasm among public university leaders to advance college completion nationally,” APLU President Peter McPherson said. “We have to seize the moment and mobilize institutions to improve not just college access, but also equity in student outcomes and the number of students who earn degrees.”

UTSA is part of a group of eight schools that enroll a large number of students whose financial need makes them eligible for Pell Grants, said Rhonda Gonzales, UTSA’s interim vice president for student success. Federal Pell Grants are given to low-income students to pay for higher education costs and, unlike student loans, do not need to be repaid.

Rhonda Gonzales
Rhonda Gonzales Credit: Courtesy / UTSA

UTSA serves a large population of low-income students, with close to 70 percent of the student body receiving financial aid.

Over the next five years, UTSA will meet with other participating schools, including Texas State University, the University of Texas at El Paso, and Northern Arizona University, to brainstorm how to develop and scale best practices for improving student success.

At the group’s first meeting in November, schools talked about addressing some key challenges by improving financial literacy for students, bridging achievement gaps, creating a more inclusive environment for students from different cultures and backgrounds, and making it easier to transfer from community college to a four-year institution. Presidents from the universities still need to sign off on priorities, after which the group will have a better sense of direction for future work, Gonzales said.

By 2022, the APLU wants participating universities to share lessons learned and develop a sustainability plan for new strategies. In the meantime, Gonzales said UTSA can share helpful tools it uses, like a transfer calculator that helps community college students transferring to UTSA calculate their credit hours, and adapt ideas used by its peer institutions.

“When you think about the fact that we collectively enroll more than 3 million students, it is awesome to think about if we get this right, or even big parts of this right, the impact it could have on families and students,” Gonzales said.

UTSA’s work in the initiative, known as Powered by Publics: Scaling Student Success, pairs well with UTSA President Taylor Eighmy’s Initiative on Student Success, Gonzales said. Eighmy’s initiative seeks to increase the school’s first-year retention rate to 85 percent, four-year graduation rate to 35 percent, and six-year graduation rate to 60 percent by 2023.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.