The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) enrolls more than 22,000 students, 83 percent of whom are from El Paso, more than half are first in their families to attend college, a third report an annual family income of $20,000 or less, and 75 percent are Latino, mirroring the demographics of the 750,000 residents on the U.S. side of a U.S.-Mexico borderplex, with its population of 2.5 million. UTEP also enrolls approximately 1,400 Mexican students who commute to the campus from Juarez, Mexico.
Twenty-five years ago, UTEP was not so well-aligned with the demographics of the surrounding region. Too many talented young people, mostly low-income and Hispanic, were not encouraged to aspire to or prepare academically for higher education. Their future quality of life and the prosperity of the entire region—and UTEP’s credibility as a responsible public university—rested on our changing that picture.
As a first step, UTEP invited all public institutions to agree that continuing to blame each other for low academic attainment was not only futile but foolish, given that more than 80 percent of students in postsecondary education were products of area school districts and three-fourths of the teachers were graduates of UTEP…a truly closed educational loop!
The next step, in 1991, was to establish the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a partnership that includes UTEP, the El Paso Community College (EPCC), county school districts, civic organizations, and political leaders and is centered on the belief that all children—regardless of race or ethnicity, the school they attend, or the neighborhood they live in—are entitled to a first-rate education, to educators who believe in them, and to a real chance to learn challenging content. Directly linked was UTEP’s commitment to achieve both access and excellence, recognizing that talented young people in this region have every right to expect the same enhanced educational experiences offered their peers in more affluent settings.
For 20 years, the Collaborative has been a quietly powerful force, working to set high standards for K–12 and ensure that those standards are aligned with postsecondary expectations; provide professional development to teachers and administrators and link UTEP and EPCC disciplinary experts with K–12 partners; identify or develop high-quality STEM and literacy curricula and support their implementation; and facilitate the enactment of policies that ensure action on our shared goals. Concurrently, K–12 has worked closely with UTEP to help redesign and improve teacher preparation programs and to develop a network of college readiness initiatives. All this work relies heavily on shared K–16 achievement data to track progress toward goals and inform future directions.
Progress has been impressive. In the early 1990s, less than a third of area students were prepared for college; today, 90 percent of students are receiving that preparation and El Paso leads all major metropolitan areas in Texas in high school graduation rates of Hispanic students. Enrollments at both UTEP and EPCC have grown significantly and reflect the demographics of the region, and there has been a 106 percent increase in undergraduate degrees awarded to Hispanics by UTEP over the past 10 years.
UTEP has affirmed the principle that there must be no trade-off between access and excellence if a public university is truly to serve its regional population, and that access and excellence can only be achieved through committed, long-term, and robust partnerships that facilitate academic pathways, K–16, for all students.
Diana Natalicio is president of The University of Texas at El Paso.